Health officials in Brazil advised married couples to put off pregnancy because of the spread of a mosquito-borne virus associated with newborn microcephaly. This type of neurological disease can lead to incomplete development of the newborn's brain.

Pediatric infectologist Angela Rocha from the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital stressed that the decision is very personal. However, during these uncertain times, health officials pushed through with their recommendation. The Oswaldo Cruz Hospital is located in São Paulo, which was hit hardest by the mosquito-borne virus.

Newborn Microcephaly By The Numbers

In 2015, over 2,400 alleged microcephaly cases have been reported across 20 states in Brazil. In 2014, there were only 147 cases of microcephaly documented. In the state of Pernambuco, there are over 900 microcephaly cases already reported.

Six states in Brazil declared a state of emergency. The initial microcephaly cases were concentrated in the northeastern parts of the country. However, cases are now popping up in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There were also 29 microcephaly-related infant deaths, which doctors are currently investigating.

"These are newborns who will require special attention their entire lives. It's an emotional stress that just can't be imagined," said Rocha. In Pernambuco where cases are so high, this could mean an entire generation of newborns are affected with microcephaly.

Microcephaly is a neurological illness which causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads. This condition can lead to severe development issues, including infant death.

The surge in documented microcephaly cases in November were parallel with the arrival of the Zika virus in the country. Doctors found that most mothers who gave birth to newborns with microcephaly also had Zika-like symptoms such as rash, headaches and mild fever during their early pregnancy.

An autopsy of an infant born with microcephaly revealed the presence of Zika virus. Brazil's Health Ministry found that the link was established between the two conditions, and announced the findings on Nov. 28.

The Health Ministry expressed the unique situation. Research studies are being conducted to conclude if the virus is the actual cause of microcephaly in infants.

The Rise of Zika Virus

The Zika virus was nearly unheard of until several years ago when it began to appear in remote parts of the world. Because of the virus' recent rise in remote areas, the scientific community couldn't help but wonder if its recent surge and the spread of dengue fever are linked to climate change consequences.

Zika virus affected almost 75 percent of the 11,000 residents in Yap Islands in 2007. In 2013, the virus popped up in Tahiti and several parts of French Polynesia where it infected around 28,000 people. The severe infections led people to seek medical care. In May this year, Zika arrived in Brazil.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has not only been tracking the virus' spread but also issues a global alert about Brazil's recent situation. The organization stressed that Zika appeared in Cape Verde, West Africa for the first time. The virus also affected residents in Honduras and Panama. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they found Zika virus in some of the returning overseas travelers.

Brazil's efforts to contain the Zika virus continues. The government has encouraged people to limit time spend outdoors and to use mosquito repellant. Possible breeding places of virus-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitos are also being treated with larvicide.

Photo: Marina Aguiar | Flickr

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