At least that’s what I was told, and that’s what I believed for six long, painful weeks. They were excruciating weeks of waiting for a special test that only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can do to confirm whether I had, in fact, contracted Zika during the beginning of my first trimester — a crucial period of time for a fetus’ brain and nervous system development.
I endured over 40 anxiety-provoking days carrying my second baby, one that I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep, before learning that my test result was — thankfully — a false positive.
I am a scientist. I’ve published many scientific papers. I’ve never published anything about my personal life, and even now, I am not entirely comfortable with the idea. But as Zika continues to spread, other women and families should be aware of what my family went through as they navigate testing and diagnosis themselves. We could have known more. My husband and I could have avoided a living hell during what should have been a joyous time in our lives.
But at 36, I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a Zika vaccine before trying for another baby so we took extreme precautions from day one. We wore loose-fitting long sleeves and long pants, and socks and shoes, every day — with DEET on our rare bits of exposed skin. We severely limited our outdoor time. If you’ve ever been to Miami in August, you know that the sweat pools in your lower back within moments of stepping outside, even when standing still in the shade, so imagine chasing after a toddler with almost every inch of your skin covered in 90 degree heat with 90% humidity. We were a spectacle, drawing stares at our local park, but it was worth dramatically decreasing our quality of life, we thought, in order to protect ourselves from Zika.
I found out that I was pregnant with my second child very early on. We were thrilled. Despite our extreme precautions, I had my blood drawn for my free Zika test just one week later.
I was shocked to receive the call from my OB — my Zika antibody test was positive, meaning that I had likely been exposed to the virus in the past 12 weeks. My entire world stopped. Through sobs, I said that my positive result simply wasn’t possible. We had made our lives miserable to (successfully) avoid mosquito bites. We had never traveled to the active transmission zones. It made no sense.
Testing at a private lab could cost up to $800. Based on our precautions and the steep cost, we did not have him tested. But now, we inferred that it was Zika, and that he had given it to me at the worst possible time in terms of fetal development — in the first trimester. The doctors told me that false positives were possible. They implored me to wait for the test results from the CDC before deciding whether or how to proceed with the pregnancy. This gave me a glimmer of hope, which at the time I considered dangerous.
Throughout this horrible time, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were the chances of a false positive? One in 100? One in 1,000?
Eventually, my PRNT came back — six weeks to the day from receipt of my false positive result and over seven weeks from when my blood was drawn. I was over 12 weeks pregnant by then. I could see from the test’s date of completion that it took almost a week for the results to travel from the CDC to the health department to my doctor and finally to me. The waiting was agonizing but the reality is that this delay could mean the difference between a woman being able to terminate an affected pregnancy — if she so desired – or not. Despite the fact that pregnant women’s tests are supposed to be prioritized, my husband’s tests came back weeks before mine.
If Congress had empowered the CDC to establish more efficient reporting systems, we might already have better and more refined tests. The Zika virus is here to stay and scientists and public health officials need continued funding to learn more so that other vulnerable pregnant women do not find themselves in my position. Instead, Congress played a political game with our lives and the lives of other families, and to me, it is absolutely unforgivable.
We are having a daughter in June. We are extremely thankful for her health and grateful that this saga is behind us. But the threat is not really behind us — there are still months ahead of protecting myself from mosquitos potentially carrying Zika. I think about it — and about all the many people similarly at risk — every time I step outside.