This week, Katie Falkenberg, a photographer for the LA Times, was named a Pulitzer finalist for Motherhood in the Time of Zika. Not only is her work stunning, but it captures the very honest, everyday tragedy of an incurable and unpreventable disease.
Zika infection is usually harmless in healthy adults and children. The risk of fetal developmental disorders like microcephaly strikes fear in pregnant women and devastates those affected, as described in Falkenberg’s Times profile:
As many as a third of mothers are unmarried in [Brazil], where the rate is highest in impoverished rural villages and crowded slums. Even mothers who have a partner have found themselves suddenly abandoned as their relationships crumble under the emotional strain, economic burden and social stigma that come with raising a child who may require almost constant attention. Many [of these babies] develop severe cognitive and physical disabilities that require expensive therapy and monitoring by specialists.
Meanwhile, Washington endured an embarrassing fight over a spending bill to provide relief in both domestic and international efforts to handle Zika. The Obama White House requested emergency funding when the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Over the next 6 months, these funds were held hostage in a bill that also addressed things like defunding Planned Parenthood and allowing Confederate flags to be flown at cemeteries. That is, the Zika outbreak fell victim to the reality of 21st century U.S. politics: sometimes even tragedy and epidemic are insufficient pressure for political action.
Now, nearly half a year after the $1.1 billion bill was finally signed into law, the first live-attenuated vaccine candidate was found to show complete protection from Zika infection. Pei-Yong Shi, author of a study published in Nature:
A successful vaccine requires a fine balance between efficacy and safety. Vaccines made from attenuated live viruses generally offer fast and durable immunity, but sometimes with the trade-off of reduced safety.
Shi’s study shows what he believes is sufficient safety testing to warrant further development of the candidate vaccine. There are dozens of Zika vaccines in the pipeline, but most require several rounds of shots—a potential obstacle in countries like Brazil where access and delivery may be difficult.
Such live-attenuated vaccine has the advantage of single-dose immunization, rapid and strong immune response and potentially long-lived protection. Therefore, a safe live-attenuated vaccine will be ideal in prevention of Zika virus infection, especially in developing countries.
In the U.S., nearly every state has at least one expecting mother with the disease. Now that we’re on our way into spring, many high-risk areas like southern Texas are taking extra precautions to defend against the mosquito-borne disease. This week, the Texas Department of State Health Services recommended testing all pregnant residents in certain counties and all residents showing certain symptoms of Zika infection.
Twice in the past month, President Trump has called for crippling cuts to the budget of the NIH, the primary funding agency for health-related research in the U.S. Research in medicine is patchwork, and the message of its results is often muddied by conflicting studies. But adequately funding these projects helps us to answer questions that give context and hope to Falkenberg’s images.
Image: Katie Falkenberg