icrocephaly refers to a neurological condition where a newborn baby has an unusually smaller head than normal when compared to babies of the same age and sex.

During pregnancy, babies’ heads grow as the brains grow and this continues for years even after birth. However, if something happens such that a baby’s brain does not develop at the right pace or fully during pregnancy or stops developing after birth, then one might end up with a child with microcephaly. Experts consider this to be severe microcephaly.

The above, however, is not the only cause of microcephaly. There are other isolated cases that could lead to microcephaly such as:

Infections: Infections such as rubella (viral), toxoplasmosis (a parasitic poisonous infection), chicken pox (viral), maternal uncontrolled phenylketonuria (a birth defect that restricts the body’s ability to break down a specific amino acid) and cytomegalovirus have been linked to birth defects.

In 2015/2016, an outbreak of newborns with microcephaly in the Americas was linked to the Zika virus. The aedes mosquito spreads the virus and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) determined that there was enough empirical data to suggest that Zika was a cause of microcephaly in newborns.

In Kenya, Kilifi County is considered to be the most affected with the highest number of cases of children born with the abnormality. Experts linked the abnormality to bacterial neo-natal tetanus infections.

Craniosynostosis: This refers to the premature fusing of joints between the bony plates that form an infant’s skull. This keeps the brain from growing. To right the anomaly, a child needs surgery to separate the fused bones so that the brain gets space for growth.

Severe malnutrition: This refers to lack of the necessary nutrients during fetal life. Experts have observed that a poor diet in mothers during pregnancy can lead to microcephaly in newborn babies. The effect is irreversible in the developing child as noted in a study involving aboriginal children in Australia.

Exposure to harmful substances: Alcohol, certain drugs or toxic chemicals such as mercury have been linked to microcephaly.

Change in genetic make-up or abnormalities: Children who have Down syndrome are prone to microcephaly. Other diseases resulting from chromosome abnormalities can also trigger microcephaly.

Interruption of blood supply to a baby’s brain: Reduced oxygen supply to the baby’s brain due to any reason during pregnancy and delivery can also result in microcephaly.

Problems related to microcephaly

Children with microcephaly can experience a number of challenges owing to the condition and its severity. Often, these challenges are lifelong. Microcephaly has been linked to various conditions including:

1. Seizures
2. Developmental delays e.g. sitting, walking
3. Decreased intellectual abilities to fully function and learn
4. Hearing loss and vision problems
5. Problems with feeding, movement and balance
6. Dwarfism

Living with microcephaly

Microcephaly can be diagnosed during pregnancy through ultrasounds in late second trimester and third trimester. In other instances, microcephaly is usually diagnosed just after birth. A nurse or medical practitioner will measure the head of the newborn during a physical exam and compare it to those of other children of the same sex and age.

Babies with microcephaly need regular follow-ups with a healthcare provider. This is because it is unpredictable to determine exactly what problems the children may face due to the brain’s underdevelopment.

There is no cure for microcephaly. However, developmental services such as speech and physical therapy early in life can help children with mild microcephaly to improve and maximise their physical and intellectual abilities.