A rare virus is causing babies to be born with abnormally small brains and skulls, and the number of cases are drastically increasing. The Zika virus is spreading rapidly throughout South America and now Puerto Rico has been added to the list of countries where babies are suffering from the potentially life-threatening microcephaly. In Brazil, thousands of cases have been reported in the past year, and the government is scrambling to address the problem amid criticism for not acting sooner. Babies with this birth defect have been reported in ten Central and South American countries so far, and it is believed that the virus will continue to spread.
The Zika virus restricts the size of babies’ brains and skulls, a condition known as microcephaly. The diminished brain size often creates serious neurodevelopment issues, which means children suffering from the birth defect could require either life-long care or meet an early death. Brazilian doctors are investigating 29 infant deaths in connection to the Zika virus, and pregnant women throughout the country are worried about their babies’ future.
Brazil is a hotspot for the virus, and the number of cases there have skyrocketed in the last year. In 2014, only 147 cases were registered, and that figure shot up to 2,782 in 2015. Medical authorities suspect the deformation occurs during pregnancy, after the mother contracts the Zika virus through a mosquito bite. It’s believed that the virus is caused by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can also carry yellow fever and dengue fever, to which Zika is related. The Brazilian government is now urging pregnant women to avoid mosquito bites at all costs, and even suggesting that hopeful mothers living in areas with large mosquito populations work to delay pregnancy in order to avoid the birth defect.
New cases show that the disease is spreading rapidly. Since October, a number of Central and South American countries have detected the Zika virus, including Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Panama, Suriname, and Venezuela. Puerto Rico has identified a single case so far, making it the newest addition to the list. Authorities warn that global travel could accelerate the spread of the disease, and the World Health Organization has yet to determine what caused the outbreak in the first place.