Infectious causes of microcephaly: epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and management

Lancet Infect Dis. 2018 Jan;18(1):e1-e13. doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(17)30398-5. Epub 2017 Aug 30.


Microcephaly is an important sign of neurological malformation and a predictor of future disability. The 2015-16 outbreak of Zika virus and congenital Zika infection brought the world's attention to links between Zika infection and microcephaly. However, Zika virus is only one of the infectious causes of microcephaly and, although the contexts in which they occur vary greatly, all are of concern. In this Review, we summarise important aspects of major congenital infections that can cause microcephaly, and describe the epidemiology, transmission, clinical features, pathogenesis, management, and long-term consequences of these infections. We include infections that cause substantial impairment: cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, rubella virus, Toxoplasma gondii, and Zika virus. We highlight potential issues with classification of microcephaly and show how some infants affected by congenital infection might be missed or incorrectly diagnosed. Although Zika virus has brought the attention of the world to the problem of microcephaly, prevention of all infectious causes of microcephaly and appropriately managing its consequences remain important global public health priorities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Central Nervous System Infections / complications*
  • Central Nervous System Infections / congenital*
  • Central Nervous System Infections / epidemiology
  • Central Nervous System Infections / pathology
  • Disease Management*
  • Humans
  • Microcephaly / diagnosis
  • Microcephaly / epidemiology*
  • Microcephaly / etiology*
  • Microcephaly / pathology