The Zika virus continues to make headlines after it crept into the U.S., first in Florida and then here in Texas in the city of Brownsville. The mosquito-borne virus can cause devastating birth defects. Now the March of Dimes is making a big push to educate people as the spring mosquito season approaches.
Texas Public Radio's Bioscience-Medicine reporter, Wendy Rigby, talked to San Antonio pediatrician Dr. Lawrence O’Brien. Here is a transcript of the interview.
Rigby: What are the 3 things the March of Dimes is doing to try to proactively to keep people from being infected with the Zika virus?
O’Brien: The March of Dimes in conjunction with the CDC is working on a coordinated effort to fight Zika in a lot of different areas. So providing continuing education for nurses in the form of “What Every Nurse Should Know About Zika” in both English and Spanish. Nurses are frequently the first contacts people have with the healthcare system so they need to be up to date and know what’s going on. And it does provide continuing education for them.
There’s also preparing Zika prevention kits for newborns in Puerto Rico. These include mosquito nets and onesies and information on how to prevent this.
We’re also hosting and promoting Zika Care Connect, a new website that will come online in April. It’s going to help Zika-affected families connect with healthcare professionals that have experience dealing with the neurological problems associated with Zika infection.
Rigby: Because there are still a lot of unknowns, right? And if this were to become a bigger deal in the U.S., if we had more cases, how would that be handled? Would that be difficult?
O’Brien: It would be a little difficult because of the devastation this causes and the sheer numbers could be overwhelming. It’s going to cause a problem if we don’t prevent this.
Rigby: Because there are so few cases, not that much is known.
O’Brien: Right. So a lot of the cases have taken place in South America, the big volume. And we still don’t know the whole risk. If you take a thousand women with Zika infection, we don’t know how many of their babies will be affected. It’s a lot. And you don’t want to get it and you don’t want to find out.
Rigby: These are not minor birth defects. These are either killer birth defects or life-altering birth defects. Can you describe that to our listeners?
O’Brien: So we know this causes spontaneous abortions. We don’t know the exact rate. So, yeah, it’s a killer right there. The babies that have this and are severely affected have neurological defects including brain development which is the big one. And it results in what’s called microcephaly which means a small head. So your head size at birth is dependent on brain growth. And if your brain doesn’t grow, babies have a small head. And if you have a brain that’s not growing, these kids are devastated neurologically. It can also cause, in normal sized kids, vision problems and hearing problems. It runs the gamut of causing neurological problems that are life long, as far as we can tell.
Rigby: Do you think Americans are taking it seriously enough yet?
O’Brien: I think so. I think it’s gotten a lot of publicity. Of course, the risk is over publicity, the sky is falling kind of mentality.
Rigby: As a pediatrician, how do you advise mothers-to-be and new mothers? Have you gotten questions from people? What do you tell them and what do they ask?
O’Brien: Well, you know, you hate to make a pregnant woman so paranoid she can’t step outside. There are ways to prevent mosquito bites. The big thing is controlling the mosquito population including around your home. So no standing bowls of water for pets or birdbaths. Or if you, if you empty them every three days, that’s the recommendation. We know if you go out with a long-sleeved shirt and clothes that are light-colored, it helps reduce mosquito bites. And mosquito repellents work. And they’re very safe. DEET’s been around a long time. That’s probably the number one to look for. It’s safe for babies. It’s safe for moms and it’s safe for pregnant moms.
Rigby: How young a baby can you put DEET on?
O’Brien: Two month old.
Rigby: Wow. I didn’t know that. Thank you very much for being here.
O’Brien: You’re welcome.