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In Brazil, Researchers Launch Massive Study Into Zika Virus


In Brazil, there's a massive study underway to learn more about the Zika virus. The mosquito-borne disease has fueled a health crisis in the country. Since November, nearly 4,200 babies have been born with tiny heads and brain damage. The suspected culprit is Zika. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from the Brazilian city of Salvador. And Lourdes, you're in the state of Bahia, one of the hardest hit regions. What's happening there?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It is. I spent the day at a hospital where a large-scale study of mothers and their babies is underway. There are around 533 cases in this state alone. And the aim of the gathering today, I was told, is twofold. First, you know, it's to help the mothers and their children by getting experts together who can look at these children and evaluate them and advise on their care. But it's also a chance to study a large group of women who have had Zika and their infants with doctors and researchers across disciplines.

SIEGEL: And what are the researchers trying to learn?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, they don't really know very much, so they're trying to learn as much as possible. But on this trial, they're trying to discover a few things. First, they need to prove scientifically, beyond a doubt, that these cases of microcephaly where the infant is born, as you mentioned, with a small cranium and severe developmental delays is, in fact, related to Zika. And for that they have to rule out sort of every other cause, so that's what they're doing. And they're also looking at how this disease is manifesting itself, how this kind of microcephaly is different from other types that have other causes. And they've made some interesting discoveries.

SIEGEL: What have they discovered?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you know, they haven't been able to make any firm analyses. They're still in the beginning stages of this. But, for example, they now believe that Zila is also suspected to have a potentially wide range of effects on the fetus. They found some cases where the child might not be microcephalic but might've suffered hearing her eyesight impairment. One doctor called the microcephaly potentially the tip of the iceberg and that there are a lot more things that Zika could potentially affect in the development of small children. It's still not clear, but looking at a large group of babies and mothers and having all these different specialists under one roof will, say the researchers, increase what they know about Zika and its effects.

SIEGEL: Obviously these babies will need long-term care. Has the government said anything about that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. Brazil today made some new announcements. It said it will give a monthly stipend to the mothers of microcephalic infants. You know, I can tell you, Robert, that I met a large group of these women today, and they are overwhelmingly from poor backgrounds. One of the mothers was just 16 years old. She was clutching this tiny infant in her arms. And caring for an infant with severe disabilities at whatever age, but specifically if you come from a poor background and you're young, you know, it often means that the mothers can't work. So there's no way for them to earn a living. It's an enormous strain on the family, so this stipend is supposed to help with that.

SIEGEL: Lourdes, do the mothers typically remember having had the Zika virus, or is it kind of an ailment that might've passed undiagnosed or unnoticed?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that's the problem. Zika, actually, in only one out of five cases will show symptoms. So many of the mothers that I spoke to do remember having had some sort of rash, some sort of virus. They might have not known at the time what it was. I interviewed one couple whose child is, you know, very recently born, and they didn't even know that there was a problem until after the child was born. So, you know, you're seeing a range of different things here. It's not just women who knew that they might have had a virus, but also women who didn't know that they had any problems at all.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro speaking from Salvador in Brazil. Lourdes, thanks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.