Zika and Microcephaly: The Real Test

Zika and Microcephaly: The Real Test

Microcephaly – “a neurological condition that occurs because a child’s developing brain doesn’t grow properly. This causes the disease’s most obvious physical symptom: a head size that is much smaller than normal.”

For half of my adult life, I have been very familiar with this term, but rarely could I use the term without defining it for others.

Now, thanks to a mosquito and a virus, it’s on everyone’s lips.

Microcephaly. Small head. Small head => small brain => less cognitive capacity.

What form will that “less” take? One never knows.

One of my children is microcephalic.

The cause wasn’t Zika; it was alcohol. Her birth mother was in the throes of depression and raging alcoholism when my daughter was conceived and throughout most if not all of the pregnancy. Microcephaly is one manifestation of the broader class of experiences identified as fetal alcohol syndrome.

Of course, the best thing would have been for my daughter’s biological mother to have gotten the help she needed to deal with her trauma and her addiction, long before she entered into the relationship that produced a child. For whatever set of reasons, that didn’t happen. She fell through the holes in her own family of origin, then through the holes in the social safety net, and into persistent depression and alcohol abuse. And the little girl with the tiny head would, like her siblings, be taken from this young woman, ultimately to be placed for adoption, ultimately to become a member of my family.

There’s a lot of talk right now in Florida of responding to the Zika threat, primarily because of the danger of microcephaly. The best response concerns identifying the breeding grounds of the Aedes mosquito and eradicating the larvae. Next best: spraying to kill the mosquitoes or, perhaps, using other strategies (like sterilized mosquito mates) to cause them to die out.

For humans, it’s mosquito repellant, staying indoors at dusk, and using screens and air conditioning.

None of this is perfect. One doesn’t have to be in a region where mosquitoes carry Zika to end up with Zika. It can be transmitted through sexual contact with a human being, as well as by the bite of the bug.

So what comes next?

The push is for testing. If one thinks one has been exposed, or if one comes down with the adult symptoms of the virus, get tested. If one has Zika (and this is where it gets tricky, right?), perhaps one should refrain from intimate relations (or at least take certain thorough “precautions”) until the virus is completely out of one’s system. If one is in an intimate relationship with someone who has, or may have Zika, adopt a similar approach.

The spread of STDs among Americans, across racial and ethnic groups, suggests that it may be difficult to secure compliance with these last directives.

So . . . let’s say a woman is pregnant, and she gets tested, and she is found to have Zika. Then what?

All that testing does is tell one how the odds of certain outcomes have changed. It doesn’t say what the outcome actually will be. Testing or no testing, Zika or no Zika, some children will be born with microcephaly. Zika simply increases the odds.

And for some children born with microcephaly, it will be of little consequence. For others, it will be a central fact of their daily life.

It is easy for us to say that we care about kids and families. The rhetoric comes naturally, and almost no one is offended by passionate declarations of how hard we or our leaders will work for Florida’s families and Florida’s next generation.

It is harder to take on the serious business of assisting families with a child with a disability. Yet such a commitment is absolutely necessary, if our rhetoric actually means anything. Raising a child with a disability, however mild or severe, places additional stress on parents and families. The more substantial the disability, the greater the stress.

Such stressors are associated with a variety of challenges to the family system.  Higher living costs through the cost of medical care, counseling, therapy and accommodations. Lower incomes and poorer job stability (someone has to take time off to meet with doctors, therapists, school counselors, etc.). Strained marriages and higher rates of divorce (“I didn’t sign on for this!”).

For the child, early and sustained intervention can make a huge positive difference. On the other hand, inadequate support can lead to less lifetime success, with accompanying greater public expense.

Testing, whether for a disease or a disability or for achievement, is pointless without a willingness to take constructive action when one has the results. Are we, as a society, ready to meet the needs of children unfortunate enough to be harmed by Zika?

I guess that’s the real test.

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