In Florida, controlling Zika is no simple matter

Health

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week, the U.S. Congress finally agreed on more funding to fight the Zika virus. The money comes months after health officials asked for it and places like Florida grapple to slow the virus' spread.

In Miami, as William Brangham reports, the crisis has put pregnant women particularly on edge.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Beyond the famous sugar-white sands of South Beach in Miami, there's a clear sense of unease about the growing public health crisis here.

GOV. RICK SCOTT (R-Fla.): This means Florida has become the first state in the nation to have local transmission of the Zika virus.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Over the last few months, officials have been waging an all-out war against mosquitoes, spraying pesticides from the air, going door to door in some neighborhoods, checking plants and standing water, and plastering the city with warning signs, telling residents how to protect themselves from Zika.

There are now over 940 documented cases of Zika in the state of Florida and over 230 in Miami-Dade County alone. But the epicenter is here in Miami, and the largest number of locally-acquired Zika infections have occurred in these two neighborhoods.

How are people in Florida doing with this?

SAMMY MACK, Health Reporter, WLRN: The pregnant women that I have talked to, and their partners, or people who know pregnant women are taking it very seriously, and there's a lot of anxiety there. There's a lot of anxiety there.

Pregnant women should avoid nonessential travel to the county.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sammy Mack is a health reporter for WLRN, the local NPR station in Miami. While she's eager to cover this big story, Mack has ended up in the middle of in it in a way she'd rather not. She's also four months pregnant.

SAMMY MACK: It became an issue of, OK, how — how am I going to cover this thing that is happening in the middle of my beat, in a way that is not putting me at any kind of additional risk?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mack took one of the free Zika tests offered by the state, but the results took weeks, and those delays can limit the options for pregnant women.

SAMMY MACK: I waited five weeks to get my results back.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In the middle of a pregnancy?

SAMMY MACK: In the middle of a pregnancy.

If women don't get their test turned around quickly and are waiting four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, whatever it is, that may affect their window to decide to terminate the pregnancy. Florida restricts abortion past 24 weeks.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thankfully, Mack's results were negative. But she has to remain vigilant. All it takes is one mosquito bite.

And, as a journalist, this story is unfolding in areas she's not supposed to go.

SAMMY MACK: I now have bug spray that I give out to everybody.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Is that right?

SAMMY MACK: Yes. Yes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Individual doses for people?

SAMMY MACK: Yes. Yes. I ordered a huge pack online, and I hand them out to people who are going to the places that I'm not going to.

DR. ELLEN SCHWARTZBARD: Hi, Tiffany.

TIFFANY ANDERSON, Expectant Mother: Hey, Dr. Schwartzbard. How are you doing?

DR. ELLEN SCHWARTZBARD: I'm good. How are you?

TIFFANY ANDERSON: I'm good. Thanks.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tiffany Anderson and her husband, Jay, are expecting their first child in just two weeks, and they too have had to adapt to this potential risk to their unborn child.

DR. ELLEN SCHWARTZBARD: I know you have been very cautious throughout your whole pregnancy, protecting yourself from mosquito bites with regards to Zika.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Their OB/GYN, Dr. Ellen Schwartzbard, has been advising Tiffany and all her patients to be vigilant.

The Andersons used to live just on the edge of one of the neighborhoods with active Zika transmissions, but they have since moved into this house a few miles away. Tiffany also took a Zika test a month ago. She was negative. And they have changed their behavior to make sure she stays Zika-free.

TIFFANY ANDERSON: We don't really spend a lot of time outdoors. We won't go to restaurants where we're going to be eating outdoors, even if it's outside of what the designated Zika transmission zone is, just because it's constantly changing and enlarging and…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And that's just what your daily life has to be now.

JAY ANDERSON, Expectant Father: It's just minimizing exposure.

TIFFANY ANDERSON: Exactly.

JAY ANDERSON: It's scary. And when you're scared, especially when you're scared for your unborn child, and especially when it's your first child, you try and focus on what you can control. And there's only a few things that you can.

TIFFANY ANDERSON: And I now carry insect repellent around in my purse, whereas, before, it might have been perfume. But I stopped wearing — my perfume now of choice is now DEET. So…

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Christine Curry is one of the main doctors treating pregnant women who do have Zika in Florida. Right now, she's caring for 15 pregnant women, and eight who've already given birth.

None of the babies born to Zika-infected mothers here have shown signs of the birth defect known as microcephaly. It's not clear how often an infected woman will pass the virus to their child in utero, or how many babies with the virus will develop complications.

Where do you think we are in our understanding of Zika?

DR. CHRISTINE CURRY, OB/GYN, University of Miami Health System: At the very beginning. We're less than a year into this, and so I think that it's still going to take another few years for us to both understand the consequences during pregnancy.

And then it's going to take years to know, the babies that were infected, what do they look like compared to uninfected babies when they're six months old or 1-year-old, or when they hit school age?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As public health officials try to understand this virus better, they're also dealing with a protest over Florida's efforts to curtail its spread.

PROTESTERS: No more Naled!

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Even though the EPA and the CDC have said that the spraying of the pesticide Naled is both safe and effective, its use has triggered a backlash.

SAMMY MACK: The tension around it is with people who are — fall into a couple of categories. One, there are people who are concerned that the outcome of using this chemical might be worse than the risks of Zika. There are people who are just — kind of don't believe that Zika is actually a problem, and they have been very loud at some of these meetings.

PROTESTERS: No! No! No!

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Curry spoke at one of these public hearings.

DR. CHRISTINE CURRY: With your permission, I would like to face this direction while I speak.

MAN: Sure.

DR. CHRISTINE CURRY: I am much more comfortable with patients than politicians.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Trying to convince concerned residents that, while no one wants pesticides in their neighborhoods, Zika is not to be taken lightly.

DR. CHRISTINE CURRY: And I want you to know that Zika is a thing. And while we don't fully understand it, the women who are positive have higher rates of birth defects, and higher rates of stillbirth, and higher rates of miscarriages, and higher rates of ultrasound images that are ugly and scary.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thanks in part to aerial spraying, Wynwood, one of the two Miami neighborhoods that was seeing active transmissions, it has now been declared Zika-free.

But cases in Miami Beach have only grown. In the 12 days since we visited Miami, Florida officials have discovered at least 14 additional locally transmitted cases.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Miami, Florida.

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