Health & Science

Pregnant Women And Doctors In Houston Worry Summer Could Bring Local Threat of Zika

Experts warn the U.S. Gulf Coast has the right weather conditions and mosquito populations to facilitate local transmission of the virus. Health officials have confirmed the virus can cause birth defects in exposed newborns, although the exact level of risk is unknown.

Tracy Smith, 38, and her children , Hazel, 8, and Finley, 5, at their home in the Heights. Smith is pregnant with twins and worried about the approach of mosquito season.
Tracy Smith, 38, and her children , Hazel, 8, and Finley, 5, at their home in the Heights. Smith is pregnant with twins and worried about the approach of mosquito season.

Tracy Smith, 38, was already pregnant with twins when she first heard about Zika. She lives in Woodland Heights with her husband and two older children.

“Our neighborhood is really bad with mosquitos,” she said. “Two summers ago, two of our neighbors contracted West Nile. It just feels like a breeding ground.”

Smith wasn’t too worried at first, because she figured that by the time mosquito season began, she’d be far past the vulnerable first trimester.  

But then a nurse at her obstetrician’s office told her that wasn’t a safe assumption. Research is still ongoing, but health officials warn Zika could be harmful to a fetus at any point.

“She said it’s something to be concerned about your whole pregnancy, you need to be (wearing) long sleeves and long pants, wearing DEET,” Smith recounted.

“That was kind of shocking,” she added.  

On April 13, the CDC confirmed the Zika virus can cause microcephaly and other brain defects in newborns. The virus been not been detected yet in U.S. mosquitos, but experts say the virus could gain a local foothold by this summer. The subtropical conditions of the U.S. Gulf Coast harbor Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that transmits the virus. Experts also point out that travelers could easily bring the virus back to the U.S. from Central and South America.

Doctors in Houston are getting ready. Ben Taub Hospital has opened a special pregnancy clinic for women who have traveled to Zika-affected countries. A second clinic will open soon at Texas Children’s Hospital.

In addition to blood tests and counseling, the clinic offers a targeted ultrasound that can be performed as early as 15 weeks into pregnancy. The ultrasound can help doctors see if there are any signs of Zika infection in a fetus, said Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, a maternal-fetal specialist at Baylor College of Medicine. 

Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine, says infection rates in the U.S. could be lower than in Brazil, because of better infrastructure. “We don’t how this virus is going to behave, we don’t know how we’re going to build up immunity yet and what we’re going to do.”
Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine, says infection rates in the U.S. could be lower than in Brazil, because of better infrastructure. “We don’t how this virus is going to behave, we don’t know how we’re going to build up immunity yet and what we’re going to do.”

“The early estimates in terms of the microcephaly and the brain malformations is somewhere in the neighborhood of one in a hundred (exposed pregnancies),” Aagaard said. “But that’s really a guess at this point. We don’t know.”    

Zika has not yet been detected in local mosquito populations, but Aagaard tells her patients to take precautions anyway. Pregnant women and their partners should use mosquito repellent and practice contraception throughout pregnancy, since the virus can be sexually transmitted.

 

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Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters and the Houston Press Club. Florian is a native of Germany. His studies...

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