AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
As summer approaches, cities along the Gulf Coast are increasingly worried about the mosquito-born Zika virus virus. In the Houston region, there have been at least 15 cases all related to foreign travel. Zika has been linked to birth defects. Many women and their doctors are nervous. Local public health officials are trying to prepare but with limited resources. Carrie Feibel at Houston Public Media starts us off.
CARRIE FEIBEL, BYLINE: In the waiting room at Houston IVF, patients are handed a map of Zika-affected countries and asked to fill out a questionnaire.
JAMIE NODLER: The first thing that I'm discussing now is Zika.
FEIBEL: Dr. Jamie Nodler says a few couples have already delayed the start of fertility treatment because the woman or her partner may have been exposed while traveling south.
NODLER: A lot of our patients and families are in the oil and gas industry, and so these aren't people who are traveling to Mexico and Puerto Rico for fun or vacation. These are people who have to work in some of these offshore drilling areas.
FEIBEL: Even for patients who haven't traveled, Nodler is advising they slather on repellent just in case they virus is already here but we don't know yet.
NODLER: No one wants to see an affected child.
FEIBEL: Nodler says couples will need to manage Zika risk together. If his partner is pregnant, a man should use condoms to avoid sexually transmitting the virus. All over the city, parents and would-be parents have been absorbing the news about Zika.
ANNIE TURSI: They've been saying that Zika is coming to Houston. They don't know when (laughter).
FEIBEL: That's a 35-year-old Annie Tursi. She owns four hair salons, and her husband works in consulting. Tursi says they were going to try for a third baby in 2016, but now they're going to watch and wait.
TURSI: We're really blessed to have two healthy boys. And if it does come this summer and it is a risk, then I probably just won't even try.
FEIBEL: Between their jobs and the toddler and the baby, there's no way she can simply hunker inside all summer, avoiding mosquitoes.
TURSI: By the time they have a vaccine and know more, we'll be out of diapers, and we'll be done (laughter).
FEIBEL: Another Houston mom, Tracy Smith, couldn't make that choice. She was already pregnant with twins when she heard about Zika. At a recent checkup, she learned she still had to be cautious even though she was done with her first trimester.
TRACY SMITH: She said it's something to be concerned about your whole pregnancy. You need long sleeves and long pants, and you need to be covered in DEET.
FEIBEL: Smith was surprised.
SMITH: My first thought, was, like, I'm pregnant; I'm not going to put DEET all over myself. But I guess that's what we do this summer.
FEIBEL: She's now wondering if she should move herself and her two other kids to her parents house for the summer over in a less-buggy part of Houston.
SMITH: The potential impact is so great, and those are the kinds of threats that can be disproportionately sort of taking up space in my brain.
FEIBEL: Health officials point out that even if mosquitoes start to spread the Zika virus in the U.S., infection rates probably won't be as high as in other countries. More buildings here have air-conditioning and screens to keep out mosquitoes. But doctors in Houston have already opened a special pregnancy clinic where women can get counseling and Zika blood tests. A second clinic will open this summer.
Dr. Kjersti Aagaard, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, says the clinic offers an ultrasound 15 weeks into pregnancy.
KJERSTI AAGAARD: We've actually developed a protocol around looking for very special views of the fetal brain and the eyes to look for any evidence of malformations.
FEIBEL: Aagaard reminds her patients that Zika is just one of many possible risks during pregnancy, and risks can be managed whether that's through prenatal vitamins, genetic screening or bug spray. But talking about Zika is tough because the studies are just not there yet.
AAGAARD: We wish we could give them a very clear set of facts around - this is your risk; this is the time in pregnancy where you're at highest risk. We simply don't know.
FEIBEL: But doctors in Houston aren't telling people to avoid pregnancy. They are saying to add mosquito bites to the list of cares and calculations that surround any pregnancy. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Feibel in Houston.
CORNISH: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Houston Public Media and Kaiser Health News.
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