If you take the two piece of this word and think about them, you can figure out the basic gist of this frequently-occurring ailment. “Micro” means small. “Cephaly” is derived from “cephalic” which means of the head or head-related. So, from this little piece of word math we glean that microcephaly is a condition wherein the sufferer has a smaller-than-average-sized head.
This condition can be caused by any number of factors. All in all, you can chalk it up to a flaw in the developing nervous system, but many, many different things can cause this particular flaw. It can be hereditary, or it can be caused by something the mother consumed during pregnancy. Microcephaly can be caused by the mother abusing drugs or alcohol while the child is in the womb, exposure of the mother to other toxic substances, but there are also things that can affect the unborn baby that the mother can’t control.
For instance, if a pregnant woman is previously CMV (cytomegalovirus) negative and becomes exposed to the virus while pregnant, it can cause microcephaly. Since anywhere from 50-85% of Americans will be infected with this virus by age 40, that is something an expecting mother needs to be careful of. CMV is pretty easy to catch. While not life-threatening, it can cause birth defects.
Another potential danger is PKU (also known as phenylketonuria) which is an increased amount of phenylalanine (an amino acid) in the blood. This disorder can cause not only microcephaly but also heart problems.
Since microcephaly occurs in infants at the rate of 25,000 new diagnoses every year, there is a foundation to help both the children and the new parents who have so much to learn about their child. Children with microcephaly don’t just have smaller-than-average heads, but other health and development problems as well.
Because the head does not grow, the brain does not grow, and if the brain can’t grow it can’t develop at a “normal” rate. This can cause mental retardation, though it does not always. Some kids end up with average or better intelligence. Others have developmental and speech problems, walk slower and talk slower, and often have bodies that don’t grow as quickly.
Some famous people who have or had microcephaly include Schlitzie, who appeared in the movie Freaks and worked with Barnum and Bailey as a sideshow attraction for many years. He was four feet tall, and certain developmental problems – he couldn’t communicate all that well but he was quick to understand and to mimic. Treatment of carnival folks was not so good in the 1920s and 1930s, so Schlitzie was passed around, perhaps even purchased by Barnum and Bailey. He was displayed as “The Last of the Aztecs” and often wore a muuumuu to confuse audiences as to his gender.
Schlitze came under the care of a chimp trainer by the name of Surtees, and lived and worked with him until his death in the 60′s. He was then committed to a hospital, where he lived (depressed and listless) until a fellow circus performer (a sword swallower named Unks) recognized him and took him back to the circus, where he worked until just a few years before his death.
Lester Napoleon Green, also known as Beetlejuice, is a more current example of someone with microcephaly who was used a sort of sideshow attraction. More functional than Schiltze was in terms of communication and self-care, Green started gaining public attention as a guest on The Howard Stern Show. While he still needs care he is able to relearn how to bathe and dress himself, but his frustration with interviews and other things makes one wonder if it is fair to put Green in the spotlight. Was Stern celebrating his unique humor, or making fun of him?
An unkind name to call a person with microcephaly is “pinhead,” but that term has been used to describe both Schlitze and Beetlejuice. The nickname also was given to William Henry Johnson, who had a head that was much smaller at the top than people of his age, sex, and race, and he was called “Zip the Pinhead.” Oddly enough, nobody really knows if Johnson suffered from microcephaly or not, because he was mentally sound and actually of above-average intelligence. It actually seems more likely that Johnson’s head was damaged during the birth process and just never shaped by the delivery doctor. Though it is possible that he was born with microcephaly, but was one of the cases where mental capacity developed normally.
Zip’s parents (former slaves) pretty much sold him to P.T. Barnum for money in the mid-1800′s, and Zip was known as either “Zip the Pinhead” or the “What-Is-It.” He appeared in the sideshows as the missing link, and he also did some traveling with other carnivals and circuses in addition to his work with P.T. Barnum. During his 67 years entertaining crowds, he not only was sought out by famous folks, but he learned to play the violin, and saved a little girl’s life on Coney Island in 1925. Wikipedia reports that Johnson’s last words were “Well, we fooled ‘em for a long time, didn’t we?” which makes you wonder about the life of this remarkable guy.