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Brazil grapples with Zika health emergency as Carnival begins

The Centers for Disease Control have released new guidelines for combating Zika virus, including a recommendation that men refrain from unprotected sex with women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Judy Woodruff talks with science correspondent Miles O’Brien, reporting from Brazil, about efforts by the CDC to work with medical services in Brazil to unravel the secrets of Zika.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    U.S. health officials put out new guidance today about the Zika virus. For the first time, they recommended that men who have traveled to an area with Zika should use condoms if they have sex with a pregnant woman for the entire duration of the pregnancy. The CDC also says those men may want to consider abstaining from sex with women who are trying to get pregnant.

    While the disease is overwhelmingly spread by mosquitoes, questions about three possible cases of sexual transmission led to these new guidelines.

    In Brazil, Zika has been found in the saliva and urine of two people. And more than one million people there are said to be infected with Zika.

    Our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, is covering the story. He joins me now from Recife, Brazil, where Carnival celebrations are beginning.

    So, Miles, this is a country that's hardest-hit. It also happens to be you're there at the time of this big annual holiday.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, Judy. Here we are in the middle of this public health crisis and this celebration, this national holiday begins on this night, Carnival.

    What's interesting about Carnival is that at the very core the philosophy is, forget your troubles and party like there is no tomorrow. That's how the Brazilians view it and that's why in most cases the party has gone on.

    I talked to a lot of public health officials and doctors and scientists who have been involved in this hurt for some action and some way to control the Zika outbreak, and many of them express misgivings about it, frankly, but the show is going on.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, Miles, we know the Centers for Disease Control said today that the cooperation with Brazil is getting better. That's the CDC here in the U.S. But they also have some expressed some frustration about not getting enough data from down this. What do you know about that?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    We heard a lot about this when we spoke to some of the scientists on the front lines here, some of the epidemiologists and the virologists who are working on this scientific riddle.

    This is a virus that has presented a whole new problem for them, and it's a virus, like so many things these days, that instantly become a global problem. The problem is, there is legislation, there is law in this land which makes it all but impossible for them to share samples with their colleagues in Atlanta or Glasgow or elsewhere In Europe.

    And so they have been frustrated by that inability to share their data. Having said that, in a briefing today, the head of the CDC, Tom Frieden, said that is improving. But it's a reminder that when you're in a situation like this with a fast-moving virus, it's time to bring all kinds of borders and privileges and scientific prerogatives down and try to fight the problem.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Miles, for the medical profession, I know you're talking to physicians there, researchers. You were saying this has to be very frustrating for them, that they don't feel, you said, that they have the tools in the toolbox that they need.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    I spoke to a gynecologist today who's dealt with several mothers who have had to contend with this, and she's so frustrated.

  • She said:

    "I feel like I'm in the Stone Age. I can see this coming, I see the problem developing, and I have no tools in my toolbox to help these women."

    It's an unfortunate case. They have got this virus that came out of the blue, and they really don't have a way of coping with it right now.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Miles, in terms of the science of it and dealing with the mosquitoes who are carrying this virus around, what about that front? Are they able to — I mean, are they able to project any kind of precautions that can be taken? Where are they on that front?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, obviously, they're telling pregnant women to be very careful and to guard against being bitten by mosquitoes. It's worth mentioning that those are the people. It's the pregnant women and their babies in utero that are of concern.

    When an adult gets bitten by a mosquito and gets Zika, four out of five people don't even know they have had it. So, part of it is public education. Part of it is going through and doing some spraying, which has limited efficacy.

    They have got 200,000 troops in the military knocking on doors, looking for standing water, but ultimately they're way outnumbered by the mosquitoes. We were in a lab just the other day where they're actually genetically engineering mosquitoes, male mosquitoes, to mate with females, creating progeny which will die very quickly.

    And that kind of clever approach is part of putting some tools in the toolbox to try to control how mosquitoes are carrying Zika.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, meantime, finally, Miles, warnings going out to women and to men about the dangers of this virus.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You know, Judy, it's really a heartbreaking scenario, how this cropped up. It's dangerous and it caught public health officials by surprise.

    Today, I was with a mother with a 2-month-old son who is drastically affected by this microcephaly. And it means a lifelong problem of disability and care for this now 2-month-old child of hers. And so it's — the danger cannot be understated for pregnant women. And that set against this Carnival offers up quite a contrast this year.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, it's heartbreaking. It's frightening.

    And, Miles, I know we look forward to the reporting that you're doing down there. And we will be having that in the days to come.

    Miles O'Brien, we thank you.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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