The Zika virus is spread via mosquito bites and usually results in a mild illness that includes fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes (conjunctivitis) (CDC). However, preliminary data from Brazil shows a connection between rates of pregnancy complications including microcephaly and Zika virus infections.
First, it is important to note that this is still preliminary data. A direct causal link has not been confirmed yet, and the Zika virus is not the only cause of microcephaly. However, the connection is strong enough that the World Health Organization announced yesterday that the Zika virus was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
So, what is microcephaly?
Micro = small, Cephaly = head. So microcephaly is when the head is smaller than expected when compared to individuals of the same sex and age. Often individuals with microcephaly have smaller brains that might not have developed properly. This change in development can happen during pregnancy, or after birth.
Whether or not microcephaly leads to further complications depends on the severity of the condition. Some additional challenges that have been linked with microcephaly are seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability, problems with movement and balance, challenges such as difficulty swallowing, hearing loss, and vision problems.
There is no cure for microcephaly and treatment options depend on the severity and complications. Generally speaking it is important to get routine check ups and early intervention for complications. (CDC)
While the link with Zika virus is strongly suspected but is still being investigated, other causes are confirmed including genetic mutation, some infections, severe malnutrition, and exposure to harmful substances such as alcohol, drugs, or toxic chemicals. (CDC)
Until more data is available anyone who is pregnant, or thinking of becoming pregnant has been advised to take precautions. Options include postponing travel to areas with ongoing Zika transmission and taking steps to prevent mosquito bites during their trip. No travel restrictions have been imposed at present.
Continue to watch information from organizations like the CDC and World Health Organization for updates to travel recommendations.