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The Latest Zika News Is More Bad News

It’s been a busy week for Zika news. Local spread of Zika virus in Brownsville, Texas, led to a travel advisory for the area this week, just as multiple studies were published detailing what percentage of fetuses are affected among women who are infected during pregnancy and how the virus spreads.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that in Rio de Janeiro, 42 percent of women infected with Zika during pregnancy were found to have given birth to infants with severe abnormalities. A second study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among pregnant women with potential Zika infection in the U.S., 11 percent had a fetus or infant with a birth defect. There are several potential explanations for the discrepancy: Anomalies from in utero exposure to Zika have shown up well after birth in some cases, and the Brazil study had a longer follow-up period, meaning that they may have caught more of the later manifestations. Additionally, the Brazil study is only tracking women with symptomatic cases of Zika, and scientists have hypothesized that those showing symptoms, which is just a fraction of all infections, may be more likely to have babies with abnormalities. Infants in Brazil are also generally more likely to be born with abnormalities than those in the United States. This week, researchers at the CDC also found evidence of how Zika virus replicates in fetal brains, causing microcephaly and other neurological disorders.

The severity of the threat of Zika on pregnant women and newborns puts Cameron County, where Brownsville is located, in a tough position. After five people tested positive for Zika in an eight-block area, the CDC, Texas Department of State Health Services and the Cameron County Department of Health and Human Services all recommended that women in Brownsville talk with their doctors if they are thinking about getting pregnant and be tested for Zika if they are pregnant. That’s good advice, but many women in Cameron County don’t appear to have a doctor; around a quarter of women in Cameron receive little to no prenatal care, according to Texas Kids Count, a project funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks child and maternal health. And though we don’t have data by county, Texas has one of the highest rates of unintended pregnancy of any state. And the county overall has limited access to health care — 40.7 percent of working age adults are uninsured, according to Texas Medical Association estimates of Census Bureau data.

The state is currently working with the county on how to make Zika testing available to the many people who don’t have insurance, according to Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations for the Texas DSHS.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.