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Amid Zika media blitz, forward-looking coverage looks at virus’ longer-term toll

Amid Zika media blitz, forward-looking coverage looks at virus’ longer-term toll

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Trying to stay current on all the Zika virus stories coming out these days feels a bit like trying to get to the end of Twitter — you don’t exhaust the coverage as much as dip into it.

From expanded testing protocols and the drumbeat of new cases to the stalled politics of emergency funding and the risks likely at the upcoming summer Olympics in Brazil, Zika has coalesced into the biggest health story of the summer. While much of the media coverage is understandably focused on the still-unfolding crisis, last Sunday’s Washington Post featured one of the most sobering stories to date by looking at the lifelong services and costly support many children born to infected mothers will require.

The story came in the wake of a two-day special meeting between the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics in Atlanta last week in which experts worked on updating recommendations for treating infants exposed to Zika. One of the challenges facing doctors is that while pronounced birth defects are easier to detect, more subtle developmental problems may not surface until much later. That in turn can mean months or years of anxious monitoring for doctors and families.

Given the “spectrum” of developmental problems Zika may cause, “pediatricians will have the potential to be treating children with complex medical conditions, who may need care from multiple specialists,” wrote MedPage Today in its coverage of the CDC meeting.

As the Post’s Lena H. Sun reported, a growing number of children born to moms with Zika is likely to place serious strains on health care systems, nonprofits and state services. At the extreme end of the spectrum, children may be born with the brain defect known as microcephaly, but vision problems, hearing deficits and Guillain-Barré syndrome are also associated with the virus. Writes Sun:

Across the South and Southwest, where the mosquito that is the primary carrier of Zika is endemic, advocates and officials are worried about the ability of private and state systems to handle more children with special needs.

The cost of caring for children born with Zika damage can be huge. “Our birth defects specialists tell us a single child with birth defects can usually cost $10 million dollars to care for or more,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in April.

The number of affected children is expected to continue rising. According to the CDC’s most recent numbers, 12 infants have been born with Zika-related birth defects so far, with another six pregnancies lost or terminated. But those numbers are projected to grow. There are 400 pregnant women in the U.S. who tested positive for Zika as of July 14, up from 234 women a month earlier.

While Florida epidemiologists are currently investigating the first possible cases of local transmission by mosquitoes, the areas of the country most at risk are also some of the poorest regions of the country, as shown by this map. That means existing disparities in health insurance and access to providers is liable to result in missed diagnoses as well as inadequate treatment and services:

“In Miami, you may have access to a full range of specialists, but if you’re on the Gulf Coast, in a small town in Alabama, forget it,” Cynthia Pellegrini, a senior vice president at the March of Dimes Foundation, told the Post.

For health reporters looking to expand their coverage beyond the current bevy of spot reports, it’s worth asking state health officials, nonprofits and pediatric specialists how exactly they’re bracing for Zika’s impact. What steps are being taken to monitor at-risk infants over time? How ready is your state’s early intervention program to meet the needs of kids with developmental problems?

Summer will eventually turn to Fall, and the current epidemic may fade, but for the small but growing number of babies born with Zika-related defects, their struggles will continue long after the news cycle has moved on.



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I would like to send you a copy of my recently published book, Addie & Zika, for young adults. It is published by Ian Jackson Books, What would be the best address for me to send it to you? Thank you, Ann Arnold


The Center for Health Journalism’s symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The next session will be offered virtually on Friday, March 31. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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