A woman in Spain has given birth to a baby with a shrunken head, and officials are confident that the child represents Europe's first case of Zika-associated microcephaly.
Authorities had detected the cranial abnormalities in May, but the couple decided to keep the baby, which was born at Barcelona’s Vall d’Hedbron hospital. As reported by BBC News, the mother was infected while traveling abroad, although medical professionals declined to reveal the specific location.
The baby is showing “normal and stable” vital signs, but its microcephaly will impact its entire life. Those suffering from it can experience seizures, stunted neurological development, mobility issues, feeding problems, hearing loss, and vision disorders, among others. In some cases, microcephaly can prove to be life-threatening.
Spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the Zika virus was confirmed by several recent studies to be a direct cause of several neurological birth defects. Although for most, a Zika infection is not only symptomless but harmless, expectant mothers – particularly those in their first trimester of pregnancy – face a potentially traumatizing future.
A landmark study published this month revealed that up to as many as 1.65 million childbearing women in Central and South America are potentially at risk from being infected with Zika during the current epidemic, which some think will last for at least three more years. Vaccines are being trialed, but they won’t be available for public use for the foreseeable future.
This means that the risk for expecting mothers in the Americas is extremely high. Although many infected with Zika will not have an abnormal pregnancy, up to as many as 13 percent will give birth to a child with severe neural defects.
Preventative measures aimed at deterring the Zika-carrying mosquitos are available, but the current epidemic has spread too far among too many populations to be curtailed. It appears that herd immunity, the ability of pre-infected populations to develop a biological resistance to the disease, will be the only thing that will stop the virus’ proliferation a few years down the line.
Until then, it’s a certainty that Zika infections will continue to pop up across the world, and microcephaly cases will continue to appear. Spain itself has had 190 known cases of Zika infection to date, with all but one contracted abroad – this lone case that was not was transmitted via sexual activity, which has recently been shown to be a vector for the virus.
Diagnoses may peak during the highly controversial Rio Olympics, which are due to start in just a few weeks. The games are being held in the dark heart of the epidemic, and millions of travelers are heading to them regardless.