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"It just takes your breath away": Zika virus' impact in Brazil

Dr. Jon LaPook reflects on covering the Zika outbreak in Brazil and what is being done to prevent the virus from continuing to spread
Reporter's Notebook: Zika outbreak in Brazil 07:31

After a week of reporting from "ground zero" of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook says no amount of background reading or medical research could have prepared him for seeing the emotional toll this illness has taken on families there. Zika is blamed for a spike in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads, a birth defect called microcephaly, which is often accompanied by mental retardation.

"When you actually look for the first time into the eyes of parents whose baby has microcephaly, and of course, when you look at the baby who has microcephaly, it just takes your breath away," LaPook said.

In the video above, he spoke with freelance producer/interpreter Kate Steiker-Ginzberg about the experience of covering this developing crisis in Brazil, starting with a visit to the Oswaldo Cruz University Hospital in Recife, which has seen more cases of microcephaly than anywhere else.

"Seeing babies with microcephaly was very emotional," he said. "It's devastating for [the families]. They don't know what the future holds. And of course every mother loves their baby and wants to protect it ... It was so touching to me ... The mothers said, 'This is my baby, I'm going to love my baby for the rest of his life. But what's everybody else going to do? What's society going to do?' There's this stigma in Brazil."

Doctors in Recife were instrumental in identifying the growing problem last fall, when dozens of mothers started bringing in babies with what had been, up until then, a very rare birth defect.

LaPook and his team also interviewed researchers a a leading laboratory working on unraveling the mysteries of Zika virus and how it spreads. Understanding of the virus has been changing rapidly with each new discovery. In recent days, scientists reported that in addition to being spread by mosquitoes -- by far the most common means of transmission -- a small number of cases have occurred of Zika being spread through sex and through blood transfusions. They also detected evidence that the virus can be found in saliva samples.

"And of course, each one of these is followed up by a lot of questions. What does that mean? Can you actually get it from kissing somebody, with saliva? From what we know, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's the head of infectious diseases for the NIH told me, just because you have virus in the saliva doesn't mean that you can give it to somebody that way. I think that's a very important thing," LaPook said.

As global travel makes the world "a smaller and smaller place," viruses can spread more widely than ever before, requiring greater efforts to control emerging threats like Zika and other tropical illnesses like dengue and chikungunya. LaPook believes this will require a whole new approach.

"We've been doing a 'whack-a-mole' where something pops up and we treat that," he said. "We have to think differently, we have to do almost an effort like when we said we're going to the moon -- a moonshot effort ... How can we set up a way so that we can confront other viruses, because you know there's going to be another virus. Maybe it's a whole different way of thinking about making vaccines, of treatment."

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