It seems distant now, but in the spring of 2016, a public health crisis was broiling Miami. The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that can cause major birth defects, had spread from the Caribbean up into South Florida, prompting a local health emergency and a travel advisory.
Fortunately, increased screening and government funding helped doctors get a grasp on the scope of the problem, and cooler winter temperatures put the virus-spreading mosquitoes on hold in the Sunshine State.
But medical professionals like Christine Curry know Zika hasn't taken any breaks, and they aren't, either. "We want to make sure people take it seriously since it's something that people can prevent," said Curry, an associate professor at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine and a co-director of the university's Zika Response Unit.
The University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital set up a Zika Response Unit last year to help individuals who tested positive for the Zika virus get access to immunologists, OBGYN care and pediatricians who understood the complexity of this virus.
The most jarring result of the Zika virus on a fetus is microcephaly, a condition where the baby's head is too small for his or her age, and can occur with irreversible brain damage, Curry said. While it is the scariest possibility, that hasn't been the day-to-day reality in South Florida, she said.
She's seen 120 pregnant women who tested positive for signs of the Zika virus, and it's expected the typical side effects on the babies will be some level of learning disabilities, hearing disabilities or eye issues. The effects of Zika aren't always clear at birth, and there's no guarantee a child will have any birth defects as a result of the virus. Only one child had been born at Jackson Memorial Hospital with microcephaly, she said.
She's seen 120 pregnant women who tested positive for signs of the Zika virus.
Curry, a 37-year-old Miami resident, has previously studied the complexities of viruses like HIV. She also had experience doing OBGYN care in a women's prison in Massachusetts, where many of the inmates she saw had been arrested for low-level crimes and were pregnant, poor and scared about where to turn for prenatal resources. "To be able to be present in those low moments and to be engaged with women who are very contemplative and thinking about what they want to do with their lives was an amazing opportunity," she said.
Fast forward to 2017, and Curry works with low-income mothers and mothers-to-be who have tested positive for Zika. They were "women who are experiencing something really hard in a way that society doesn't really know how to handle."
She helps patients through pregnancy and labor, both of which aren't affected by the virus, and makes sure the newborn gets screened for possible concerns. Then she makes sure the babies get regular follow-up exams so "we can intervene in an early way" if a baby isn't meeting their developmental milestones.
"It's a very different situation counseling patients in March of this year versus March of last year," Curry said. "Two years ago, it would be much harder to find data. Now it's a much different scenario."
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