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What is Microcephaly?

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  • Written By: A Kaminsky
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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Microcephaly literally means "small head." Microcephaly is a birth defect which causes a child to be born with a smaller than normal head, usually because the brain has slowed or halted development.

Microcephaly can be caused by a number of things. It can be caused by the mother catching rubella or chicken pox during pregnancy, drug abuse, untreated phenylketonuria (PKU), or by genetic disorders the child has, including Down Syndrome and other metabolic disorders. It is usually not diagnosed until after birth.

Microcephaly can range in severity from mild or no impairment to a child having very little functioning brain. It just depends on the patient. Treatment mostly consists of supportive therapies aimed at helping the child reach his or her full potential mentally. A pediatric neurologist is usually the head of a treatment team that includes physical and occupational therapists, along with speech therapy and academic assistance in school.

A child born with microcephaly may develop almost normally. If the child is growing and developing normally in other ways, therapy for the microcephaly will help the child lead a normal life.

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For more severe cases of microcephaly, treatment is largely supportive and focuses on helping the patient achieve as much as possible, while managing the myriad of symptoms that can accompany this disorder. Seizures are common, as is mental retardation, delayed speech and motor functions, short stature and difficulties with coordination and balance. Again, the severity of the disorder determines the child's prognosis. Some patients will never be able to live or work independently, assuming they live to be young adults. Parents need to plan for this eventuality, and arrange for themselves and their children to receive counseling to help them cope with long-term illness in the family.

Parents also need to make financial provision for their children, if they are developmentally disabled. This will ensure the patients receive quality care, even after their parents or next-of-kin pass away. Planning current treatment, assistance so the child can reach his full potential, and having financial arrangements in place are the best gifts a parent can give a child with microcephaly.

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