Let's Prepare To Treat Zika's Microcephaly Victims Like Kings, Not Castaways

May 18, 2016

COMMENTARY

The impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was last week’s biggest Latin American story, but maybe not the most important.

Personally, I think the weightier news was three scientific studies that conclude that the Zika virus does indeed cause fetal microcephaly – the heartbreaking condition that leaves newborns with reduced head and brain size.

If the studies are right, we may see many more infants in the Americas afflicted with microcephaly as mosquito-borne Zika spreads and infects pregnant women.

Brazil, where the outbreak is most furious, has witnessed almost 5,000 Zika-related microcephaly cases since last year. They include baby Sophia, born in Campina Grande, whose photo touched the world this year. Honduras, Panama and Puerto Rico just reported their first cases.

RELATED: Miami Versus Zika: South Florida Scientists Battle A Brazilian Epidemic

And that’s why another piece of last week’s news matters: Parker Amet was crowned prom king of my alma mater, Carmel High School, in Carmel, Indiana.

Why did I just pivot from the Amazon to the Midwest?

Because 19-year-old Parker himself was born with microcephaly (due to a genetic miscue, not Zika), which also spawned cerebral palsy. Yet he attends high school – he’s graduating from his special needs program at Carmel this month – runs track, jovially interacts with a ton of friends and says he wants to get a paying job.

Up to now in the Zika drama we've largely engaged microcephaly as a medical abstraction. We've been far more preoccupied with finding its causes than with facing its results.

Parker is, in other words, a model of the lives microcephalic kids can lead.

That doesn't mean I'm condemning mothers who might choose to abort microcephalic fetuses. Since microcephaly can wreak far more severe brain damage and disabilities than Parker struggles with, I wouldn’t pass that judgment.

My focus instead is the thousands if not tens of thousands of children who will come into the world hammered by this congenital defect thanks to Zika – and largely in developing countries that don’t always have the best track records when it comes to aiding disabled kids.

Up to now in the Zika drama we’ve largely engaged microcephaly as a medical abstraction. We’ve been far more preoccupied with finding its causes than with facing its results.

Disability advocates have complained, for example, that the World Health Organization’s recent  Zika strategic report makes only brief mention of addressing the imminent microcephaly burden.

But Parker Amet is a reminder that our hemisphere’s leaders, communities and media have an even bigger responsibility to microcephalic newborns once they pass from the headlines and into the daily existence of homes, schools and businesses.

That’s why I’d recommend officials in places like Campina visit places like Carmel.

BEST BUDDIES

Aside from Carmel High School’s special needs classes, Parker has also gotten a hand from groups like Best Buddies International – headquartered here in Miami – which brings together disabled and non-disabled young people.

My niece, Lauryn Padgett, a Carmel senior and aspiring occupational therapist, got involved with Parker through Best Buddies to help him assimilate into mainstream community life.

It wasn’t easy, of course. Physically, Parker’s as diminutive as you’d expect a microcephalic person to be. The first time Lauryn took him bowling she noticed he wears a size 2 shoe. His verbal skills are equally stunted.

Even so, Parker is a very verbal dude. “He’s one of the most social people I’ve ever met,” Lauryn told me. “He’s super-energetic.”

Sophia, one of thousands of babies born this year in Brazil with microcephaly.
Credit Felipe Dana / AP via Miami Herald

She and other Best Buddies volunteers have helped steer that vigor into his 400-meter running – he competes with non-disabled athletes in the Unified Track & Field program – and his intellectual capacity. Parker, it turns out, is a human GPS “who remembers directions better than I do,” says Lauryn. He now hopes to attend a special vocational school.

For the moment, he’s basking in his reign as Carmel’s prom king. "I am proud of myself!" he declared.

Granted, Carmel is an affluent U.S. suburb. Many of Latin America’s microcephaly victims are being born into poor, rural circumstances. But that’s all the more reason Latin American governments and private aid groups need to start gearing up now.

Developed countries like the U.S. – not to mention organizations like Best Buddies – will have to help out. And chances are, if local Zika infection spreads badly enough, we may have to tend to more microcephalic children here, too.

But whether it’s here or there, I hope people take their cue from kids like Carmel High School’s students – who’ve helped kids like Parker Amet feel more like royalty than rejects.