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At epicenter of Zika virus, anguished parents seek answers

Last Updated Feb 2, 2016 12:54 PM EST

RECIFE, Brazil -- The World Health Organization is declaring the Zika virus -- and its possible link to severe birth defects -- an international public health emergency. The outbreak started in Brazil.

A hospital in Recife has seen the greatest number of microcephaly cases in Brazil. The parents are anguished as they try to understand what this condition means for their baby.

Alice Bezerra de Paz had a healthy first baby. But two months ago, her second child, Joao Heitor, was born with microcephaly, a birth defect linked to the Zika outbreak. Babies with microcephaly have an unusually small head and developmental delays.

On Monday, the parents came to the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Recife, where doctors have seen about 300 infants with microcephaly since September. Before September, the region only saw an average of nine cases a year.

"We never expected to have an infant like this," Bezerra de Paz said. "But we will care for him in the same way."

Doctor Angela Rocha heads up the effort here to understand and manage the crisis. In her four decades as a pediatric infectious disease specialist, she has never seen anything like it.

"This is different," she said. "It's a generation of babies with disability, which is a huge social, economic and public health problem."

The conversation with a mother explaining that her baby has microcephaly is difficult. "It is a situation with a lot of stress, panic, worry, and insecurity," Dr. Rocha said.

That's because these parents and even health experts are trying to figure out what services these infants will need.

On Monday, the President of Brazil gave public health officials the right to enter any home or building in order to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds. CBS News will be following those efforts in the days to come.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook