Grant Funds Zika Care for Newborns in U.S. Virgin Islands

It’s both reactionary and a pre-emptive strike. Although not as hard hit as Puerto Rico in terms of the number of Zika infections, the U.S. Virgin Islands reports approximately 1,000 confirmed cases. However, the vast majority are infected adults, with only two known babies – one newborn and one stillbirth – affected.

However, “in the event they find more babies with symptoms of Zika, there is no health care system specifically designed to monitor and treat them over time,” said Robert C. Fifer, Ph.D., associate professor and director of audiology and speech-language pathology at the Mailman Center for Child Development of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Buoyed by a $333,333 workforce development grant from the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, Fifer plans to set up – and step up – a health care system to address diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of newborns with Zika infection in the St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John islands.

“Zika is there, alive and well,” Fifer said. The U.S. Virgin Islands already have pediatricians, ophthalmologists and neurologists, but the pediatricians are general practitioners and the specialists treat adults. Therefore, additional training is warranted.

“One of my tasks there is to find out who is also comfortable evaluating and treating newborn babies,” Fifer said.

Although Zika infection still generates a lot of questions, a study underway at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine aims to provide answers. One goal is to evaluate both common and rare disorders associated with the virus, which include the well-publicized microcephaly, as well as retinal detachment, retinal degradation, hearing loss, swallowing disorders, and potential cardiovascular complications.

Early detection and treatment are essential, Fifer emphasized, to avoid a failure to thrive in a baby with a swallowing disorder or impaired language development in a newborn with hearing loss, for example.

“We need to have facilities in place [in the U.S. Virgin Islands], so the common and the rare conditions are addressed and babies get optimal care,” Fifer said. “In addition to early detection and treatment, it’s important to monitor the children who are infected but asymptomatic for any late development of symptoms or other long-term effects.

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