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Zika Threat Heightens Stress For Expectant Mothers in South Texas

The Zika virus has reared its ugly head in Florida, and experts say Texas could be one of the next states with local transmission from biting mosquitoes. South Texas doctors are busy counseling their pregnant patients on how to protect their babies from the horrible birth defects that Zika can cause.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Dr. Patrick Ramsey monitors the heartbeat of Elizabeth Viccellio's unborn baby

The steady beat of her unborn baby’s heart is a comfort for Elizabeth Viccellio.  She lives in Brackettville, 35 miles from the border with Mexico, a country where Zika is already being spread by mosquitoes. But the health threat really hasn’t been on her radar.

"I’ve heard some things about it," Elizabeth Viccellio said. "I haven’t really followed too much. I don’t have that many concerns ‘cause I don’t really feel like it’s here where it’s a big deal."

​No local Texas Zika cases yet

It’s true that no cases of local transmission by mosquitoes have shown up in Texas. Yet. Many infectious disease specialists say it’s not a matter of if, but when. A year ago, many obstetricians had never heard of this virus. Maternal-fetal medicine specialist Dr. Patrick Ramsey of University Health System says now Texans have to pay attention.

"So that means we all need to be using mosquito repellents," Ramsey cautioned. "We all should be trying to avoid travel to countries where there might be Zika infections prevalent. Because once the mosquito population does have the Zika virus then it can spread to anybody, men or women."

Zika prevention methods

Women infected with Zika during the early stages of pregnancy have up to a 13 percent chance of delivering a baby with a small head and brain damage, a devastating condition called microcephaly plaguing several thousand babies in Brazil. It’s unclear what health problems Zika infections can cause in the second and third trimesters.  Microcephaly causes seizures, learning issues, vision loss and feeding problems.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
The lifelong medical cost for a baby born with microcephaly is estimated to be up to $10 million

Elizabeth and her husband Anthony know what it’s like to deal with a birth defect. They had a baby with spina bifida. Anthony says people need to take the risk of birth defects seriously.

"People don’t really think about those things prior to having a baby, but it’s a lifelong ordeal and has consequences that you’re going to deal with for a long time," Anthony Viccellio said.

Zika prevention begins with our own bodies and our own backyards. Dumping standing water destroys mosquito breeding grounds. Doctors advise pregnant patients to use mosquito repellent with DEET, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and stay indoors in air conditioning whenever possible. Zika-carrying mosquitoes are active during the day. Also, clothes can be sprayed with a chemical called permethrin.

​Local Zika clinic planned

University Hospital is planning to open a Zika clinic in anticipation of cases to come. "We’ve been talking for the past month about getting a process in place for patients to be able to be referred into us if they get diagnosed with Zika so that we can get them in for the appropriate testing, for ultrasound surveillance of the pregnancy, and provide counseling for their further care," Ramsey explained.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Dr. Patrick Ramsey, Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist with University Health System

He added, "I’ve had probably about a dozen patients where we’ve actually screened for Zika. So far, knock on wood, they’ve all been negative."

Zika can spread through sex  

If women are infected with Zika, the Centers for Disease Controladvises waiting eight weeks before trying to become pregnant. If women have traveled to a Zika infected area or have had sex with man infected with Zika, they are also told to wait eight weeks before trying to conceive. A man should wait even longer before trying to conceive with his partner. Zika lives in sperm for up to six months. Men are advised to use condoms during that waiting period. The virus can spread through sex. The good news? So far, Zika infections show no impact on future pregnancies.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Ronnie Medina is being checked during a prenatal appointment with Dr. Ometeotl Acosta

Tough questions from patients

Like many expectant mothers in San Antonio, Ronnie Medina is keenly aware of the risks this insidious infection poses to her unborn baby.

"You know, I’ve seen what the little heads look like. I’m a first time mother. Very overwhelming," Medina said. "The news and things that were posted on social media and then especially with the Olympics going on and all the fuss about that, it’s just always on my mind."

Medina’s physician, Dr. Ometeotl Acostaof the UT Health Science Centersees dozens of patients each week. "The resounding question on many patients’ lips? 'Should I have a baby right now?'

You know, I've seen what the little heads look like. Very overwhelming. ~ Expectant mother Ronnie Medina

I’ve had several patients who have actually considered not getting pregnant during this time because of the because of the unknowns of Zika," Acosta said.

Acosta has spent much of his time quelling fears for women like Medina. "Dr. Acosta is a great physician and he does a really good job of calming me down," Medina said. She is 14 weeks along in her pregnancy.

While Acosta says he does not discourage South Texas women from getting pregnant, his colleague Ramsey is a bit more circumspect. "I think if you could delay pregnancy it might not be the worst thing in the world.  But if you are using mosquito repellents and you’re cautious about being exposed to mosquitoes, I see no reason why you couldn’t get pregnant anytime," Ramsey stressed.

I think if you could delay pregnancy it might not be the worst thing in the world ~ Dr. Patrick Ramsey

In the newborn nurseries around South Texas, the sound of a healthy baby is all new parents want to hear, not the sound of high-tech medical care for a damaged newborn with lifelong disabilities caused by a virus spread by the bite of a tiny mosquito.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.