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CDC Team Scoured Hard-Hit Northern Brazil For Clues To Zika Virus

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

OK, let's go now to northern Brazil, which is one of the hardest hit regions for the Zika virus. CDC scientists are on the ground there and with them is NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who joins us. Good morning.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the CDC just wrapped up a major study there. What can you tell us about that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I'm in the city of Joao Pessoa, and for weeks now, a team from the CDC, along with their Brazilian partners, have been all over the state that I'm in gathering information on mothers and their microcephalic infants as well as moms and babies who appear normal to try and figure out what's going on.

They gathered 1,200 blood samples from 600 families, and the American researchers are flying back to the U.S. today to study those samples. Erin Staples headed the team here for the CDC. She's a physician and an epidemiologist. And she told me the question, Renee, that they're trying to answer for moms who might have been exposed to Zika is pretty basic.

ERIN STAPLES: As a pregnant mom living here right now, what is the risk? What is the likelihood that my baby will have an abnormality? If those studies can answer less than 1 percent, then that changes your decisions. If those studies say, if you get infected, it's going to be 80 percent likelihood, that changes the decisions. And that's the information that we need to be able to provide to help people understand what their risks are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, other questions they're trying to figure out - what is the most vulnerable time of the pregnancy? Is it the first trimester or is there a risk later?

MONTAGNE: And what are some of the other things that the CDC research is seeming to find, I guess, preliminarily now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. They did come up, as you say, with some preliminary conclusions to some things. So environmental factors, like chemical poisoning or exposure to mercury in fish for example, didn't seem to have an obvious link to the spike in microcephaly that they're seeing here.

There also wasn't anything that indicated, she says, that location had anything to do with the cases of microcephaly. You know, it didn't matter if you were in a rural area or by the sea. And something surprising - it doesn't seem to matter if you are rich or poor.

STAPLES: It doesn't discriminate based on your education, based on your learning. It's very hard with a disease that could be - here's a big word - omnipresent or, you know, it's hard to escape that when you're here living in a situation from day to day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Again, these are preliminary results. The final results of the CDC testing here are expected in the next month, and they'll know a lot more then.

MONTAGNE: And, Lulu, you've been reporting quite a bit in this area of northern Brazil. What are you finding about how Zika is affecting life there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I was at a hospital yesterday where I met a 6-day-old microcephalic baby and her mom. You know, the mother is from a rural part of the state, so she lives quite far from the main hospital here in the city. And as we've reported all along, the health system is overwhelmed here. There is a financial crisis and a political crisis in Brazil. And that's meant that resources here are really stretched with all these new cases.

But I will say this. I've been reporting on this here from very early on and a lot of work is now being done on Zika. There are teams of doctors now in place to help these babies. It's not like before when everyone was sort of scrambling to figure how to deal with what's going on. You know, for example, that mom I met will have a car from the mayor's office take her here to the city once a month from her village for her doctor's appointments. So in many cases, some of these mothers are now being given care that the general population is struggling to get.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, speaking to us from northern Brazil, thanks very much.

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

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