Drs. DeBiasi and du Plessis

Zika virus, one year later

Drs. DeBiasi and du Plessis

A multidisciplinary team at Children’s National has consulted on 66 Zika-affected pregnancies and births since May 2016.

The first pregnant patient with worries about a possible Zika virus infection arrived at the Children’s National Health System Fetal Medicine Institute on Jan. 26, 2016, shortly after returning from international travel.

Sixteen months ago, the world was just beginning to learn how devastating the mosquito-borne illness could be to fetuses developing in utero. As the epidemic spread, a growing number of sun-splashed regions that harbor mosquitoes that efficiently spread the virus experienced a ballooning number of Zika-affected pregnancies and began to record sobering birth defects.

The Washington, D.C. patient’s concerns were well-founded. Exposure to Zika virus early in her pregnancy led to significant fetal brain abnormalities, and Zika virus lingered in the woman’s bloodstream months after the initial exposure — longer than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) then thought was possible.

The research paper describing the woman’s lengthy Zika infection, published by The New England Journal of Medicine, was selected as one of the most impactful research papers written by Children’s National authors in 2016.

In the intervening months, a multidisciplinary team at Children National has consulted on 66 pregnancies and infants with confirmed or suspected Zika exposure. Thirty-five of the Zika-related evaluations were prenatal, and 31 postnatal evaluations assessed the impact of in utero Zika exposure after the babies were born.

The continuum of Zika-related injuries includes tragedies, such as a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was referred to Children’s National after imaging hinted at microcephaly. Follow-up with sharper magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) identified severe diffuse thinning of the cerebral cortical mantle, evidence of parenchymal cysts in the white matter and multiple contractures of upper and lower extremities with muscular atrophy.

According to a registry of Zika-affected pregnancies maintained by the CDC, one in 10 pregnancies across the United States with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus infection has resulted in birth defects in the fetus or infant.

“More surprising than that percentage is the fact that just 25 percent of infants underwent neuroimaging after birth – despite the CDC’s recommendation that all Zika-exposed infants undergo postnatal imaging,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National. “Clinicians should follow the CDC’s guidance to the letter, asking women about possible exposure to Zika and providing multidisciplinary care to babies after birth. Imaging is an essential tool to accurately monitor the growing baby’s brain development.”

Adré du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and Congenital Zika Virus Program co-leader, explains the challenges: ”When it comes to understanding the long-term consequences for fetuses exposed to the Zika virus, we are still on the steepest part of the learning curve. Identifying those children at risk for adverse outcomes will require a sustained and concerted multidisciplinary effort from conception well beyond childhood.”

In addition to counseling families in the greater Washington, D.C. region, the Children’s research team is collaborating with international colleagues to conduct a clinical trial that has been recruiting Zika-infected women and their babies in Colombia. Pediatric Resident Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., and Neurologist Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017.

In Colombia as well as the District of Columbia, a growing challenge continues to be assessing Zika’s more subtle effects on pregnancies, developing fetuses and infants, says Radiologist Dorothy Bulas, M.D., another member of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program.

The most severe cases from Brazil were characterized by interrupted fetal brain development, smaller-than-normal infant head circumference, brain calcifications, enlarged ventricles, seizures and limbs folded at odd angles. In the United States and many other Zika-affected regions, Zika-affected cases with such severe birth defects are outnumbered by infants who were exposed to Zika in utero but have imaging that appears normal.

In a darkened room, Dr. Bulas pores over magnified images of the brains of Zika-infected babies, looking for subtle differences in structure that may portend future problems.

“There are some questions we have answered in the past year, but a number of questions remain unanswered,” Dr. Bulas says. “For neonates, that whole area needs assessment. As the fetal brain is developing, the Zika virus seems to affect the progenitor cells. They’re getting hit quite early on. While we may not detect brain damage during the prenatal period, it may appear in postnatal images. And mild side effects that may not be as obvious early on still have the potential to be devastating.”

Expanding awareness of SUDEP

Madison Berl

Madison M. Berl, Ph.D., is helping to expand awareness of SUDEP among patients, families and caregivers.

When 4-year-old Henry Lapham died in his sleep just weeks after being diagnosed with epilepsy in 2009, it was a shock to everyone — even his pediatrician and neurologist. Henry’s cause of death was sudden unexpected (or unexplained) death in epilepsy persons (SUDEP), a condition that causes sudden death in about 1 of every 1,000 otherwise healthy patients with epilepsy. Neither health care professional had mentioned this as a possibility, as remote as it was.

“I was desperate to make sense out of our tragedy,” writes Henry’s mother, Gardiner Lapham, R.N., M.P.H., in “Increasing awareness of sudden death in pediatric epilepsy together,” an article published in the February 2017 issue of Pediatrics. After her son’s death, by working with a group called Citizens United for Epilepsy Research, Lapham connected with other families affected by the same heartbreak. “I have met many bereaved family members,” she adds, “and the most consistent thing I hear is that they wish they had known about SUDEP.”

Now, a new collaboration with Children’s National Health System, where Henry received care, University of Virginia Medical Center (UVA) and other academic medical centers is helping to expand awareness of SUDEP among patients, families and caregivers alike. Known as Childhood Epilepsy Risks and Impact on Outcomes (CHERIO), the multiyear effort aims to develop approaches to increase knowledge about SUDEP and other conditions that can accompany epilepsy, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, depression and sleep issues, according to co-authors of the Pediatrics article.

CHERIO got its start in 2014 at the American Epilepsy Society annual meeting. There, Lapham met Madison M. Berl, Ph.D., director of research, Division of Pediatric Neuropsychology at Children’s National, who studies epilepsy comorbidities. When Lapham asked what she could do to help raise awareness of SUDEP at Children’s National, she and Berl, along with William Davis Gaillard, M.D., Henry’s neurologist, hatched a plan.

Working with multiple disciplines and stakeholders, including neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, epidemiologists, basic scientists, nurses and parent advocates at both Children’s National and UVA, CHERIO plans to assess the level of knowledge about SUDEP and other epilepsy comorbidities among medical providers and parents and to implement ways to increase knowledge. The first item on the agenda, Berl explains, was to conduct a survey to see just how much doctors knew about SUDEP.

“Although many neurologists are aware of this condition, ours was the first to survey pediatricians, and the majority was not aware of SUDEP – despite having children with epilepsy in their practice,” Dr. Gaillard says. “We know that many neurologists do not discuss SUDEP with patients and the reasons for not talking about SUDEP are varied. Thus, CHERIO felt that in addition to educating neurologists about the need to discuss the risk of death associated with epilepsy, increasing pediatricians’ awareness of SUDEP is one approach that could open more opportunities for families to have this discussion.”

To help make it easier to talk about this risk, the CHERIO team is developing strategies for doctors to start the conversation with patients and their families by framing SUDEP in the context of more common epilepsy comorbidities.

“Clinicians walk a fine line in giving information at the right time to make people more aware,” Berl adds, “but also being realistic and giving information that fits with what’s going on in a particular child’s case. By discussing SUDEP along with other, more common epilepsy risks, it brings context to a family so that they’re not unduly concerned about death – which also can paralyze a family and create unnecessary alarm.” The risk of death in most children with epilepsy is very low, slightly higher than the risks faced by healthy children. But parents of children with complicated epilepsy who have more risk factors for sudden death should be especially aware , she says.

Another way to help facilitate discussion may be through a simple tweak in the medical record, Berl adds. The team is currently developing a checklist that pops up annually in a patient’s medical record to remind clinicians of important points to discuss with patients and their families, including SUDEP.

Additionally, they are working on ways that can help families become more empowered to start the discussion themselves. Materials for the waiting room or questionnaires to fill out before appointments could trigger conversations with care providers, Berl says.

Last, the team also is collaborating with a medical device company that is working on a nighttime monitoring system that could provide an alert if patients with epilepsy experience nighttime seizures, a risk factor for SUDEP. Such technologies have not been proven to prevent SUDEP. Yet, it may help caregivers get help more quickly than if they did not receive the alert.

For each of these efforts, Berl notes, having Lapham as a partner has been key. “She’s part of our meetings and has input into the direction of each project,” Berl explains. “When you have a partner who is so close to the daily work you’re doing, it just heightens those efforts and brings to the forefront the simple message of why this is important.”

Dr. Keating and Abigail

Multidisciplinary approach to hydrocephalus care

Reflective of the myriad symptoms and complications that can accompany hydrocephalus, a multidisciplinary team at Children’s National works with patients and families for much of childhood.

The Doppler image on the oversized computer screen shows the path taken by blood as it flows through the newborn’s brain, with bright blue distinguishing blood moving through the middle cerebral artery toward the frontal lobe and bright red depicting blood coursing away. Pitch black zones indicate ventricles, cavities through which cerebrospinal fluid usually flows and where hydrocephalus can get its start.

The buildup of excess cerebrospinal fluid in the brain can begin in the womb and can be detected by fetal magnetic resonance imaging. Hydrocephalus also can crop up after birth due to trauma to the head, an infection, a brain tumor or bleeding in the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. An estimated 1 to 2 per 1,000 newborns have hydrocephalus at birth.

When parents learn of the hydrocephalus diagnosis, their first question tends to be “Is my child going to be OK?” says Suresh Magge, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s National Health System.

“We have a number of ways to treat hydrocephalus. It is one of the most common conditions that pediatric neurosurgeons treat,” Dr. Magge adds.

Unlike fluid build-up elsewhere in the body where there are escape routes, with hydrocephalus spinal fluid becomes trapped in the brain. To remove it, surgeons typically implant a flexible tube called a shunt that drains excess fluid into the abdomen, an interim stop before it is flushed away. Another surgical technique, called an endoscopic third ventriculostomy has the ability to drain excess fluid without inserting a shunt, but it only works for select types of hydrocephalus, Dr. Magge adds.

For the third year, Dr. Magge is helping to organize the Hydrocephalus Education Day on Feb. 25, a free event that offers parents an opportunity to learn more about the condition.

Reflective of the myriad symptoms and complications that can accompany hydrocephalus, such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy, cortical vision impairment and global delays, a multidisciplinary team at Children’s National works with patients and families for much of childhood.

Neuropsychologist Yael Granader, Ph.D., works with children ages 4 and older who have a variety of developmental and medical conditions. Granader is most likely to see children and adolescents with hydrocephalus once they become medically stable in order to assist in devising a plan for school support services and therapeutic interventions. Her assessments can last an entire day as she administers a variety of tasks that evaluate how the child thinks and learns, such as discerning patterns, assembling puzzles, defining words, and listening to and remembering information.

Neuropsychologists work with schools in order to help create the most successful academic environment for the child. For example, some children may struggle to visually track across a page accurately while reading; providing a bookmark to follow beneath the line is a helpful and simple accommodation to put in place. Support for physical limitations also are discussed with schools in order to incorporate adaptive physical education or to allow use of an elevator in school.

“Every child affected by hydrocephalus is so different. Every parent should know that their child can learn,” Granader says. “We’re going to find the best, most supportive environment for them. We are with them on their journey and, every few years, things will change. We want to be there to help with emerging concerns.”

Another team member, Justin Burton, M.D., a pediatric rehabilitation specialist, says rehabilitation medicine’s “piece of the puzzle is doing whatever I can to help the kids function better.” That means dressing, going to the bathroom, eating and walking independently. With babies who have stiff, tight muscles, that can mean helping them through stretches, braces and medicine management to move muscles smoothly in just the way their growing bodies want. Personalized care plans for toddlers can include maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle, increasing attention span and strengthening such developmental skills as walking, running and climbing stairs. For kids 5 and older, the focus shifts more to academic readiness, since those youths’ “full-time job” is to become great students, Dr. Burton says.

The area of the hospital where children work on rehabilitation is an explosion of color and sounds, including oversized balance balls of varying dimensions in bright primary colors, portable basketball hoops with flexible rims at multiple heights, a set of foam stairs, parallel bars, a climbing device that looks like the entry to playground monkey bars and a chatterbox toy that lets a patient know when she has opened and closed the toy’s doors correctly.

“We end up taking care of these kids for years and years,” he adds. “I always love seeing the kids get back to walking and talking and getting back to school. If we can get them back out in the world and they’re doing things just like every other kid, that’s success.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Magge says research continues to expand the range of interventions and to improve outcomes for patients with hydrocephalus, including:

  • Fluid dynamics of cerebrospinal fluid
  • Optimal ways to drain excess fluid
  • Improving understanding of why shunts block
  • Definitively characterizing post-hemorrhagic ventricular dilation.

Unlike spina bifida, which sometimes can be corrected in utero at some health institutions, hydrocephalus cannot be corrected in the womb. “While we have come a long way in treating hydrocephalus, there is still a lot of work to be done. We continue to learn more about hydrocephalus with the aim of continually improving treatments,” Dr. Magge says.

During a recent office visit, 5-year-old Abagail’s head circumference had measured ¼ centimeter of growth, an encouraging trend, Robert Keating, M.D., Children’s Chief of Neurosurgery, tells the girl’s mother, Melissa J. Kopolow McCall. According to Kopolow McCall, who co-chairs the Hydrocephalus Association DC Community Network, it is “hugely” important that Children’s National infuses its clinical care with the latest research insights. “I have to have hope that she is not going to be facing a lifetime of brain surgery, and the research is what gives me the hope.”

Stacy Hodgkinson, Ph.D. Psychologist, Generations Program Director of Mental Health and Research and Study Lead Author

Improving mental health service access

Woman sitting on chair

Psychologist Stacy Hodgkinson, Ph.D., has been implementing a new strategy — integrating mental health services with primary care — to increase patients’ access to mental health care.

Children are disproportionately affected by poverty in the United States: Although they make up less than one-quarter of the entire population, about one-third of people living in poverty are kids. Lack of economic resources in childhood can have lifelong effects, including increasing the chances of experiencing a variety of mental health issues.

What’s more, although kids living in low socioeconomic settings are more likely to need mental health care, studies show that they are less likely to receive it, says Children’s National Health System Psychologist Stacy Hodgkinson, Ph.D. Estimates indicate that fewer than 15 percent of children living in poverty who need mental health care receive any services, and even fewer get comprehensive treatment.

The reasons for this disparity are multifold, Hodgkinson explains. One reason is simply insufficient numbers of trained mental health care providers to meet demand, particularly in low-income communities. Another is an inability to access available services —parents in low-paying jobs may not be able to take time off to take their children to appointments or even afford bus fare to reach a clinic. Others are afraid of the stigma that might surround being treated for a mental health issue. In her role as the director of mental health and research for the Generations Program, a support service for teen parents and their children, Hodgkinson says she has seen each of these scenarios in play.

However, she adds, over the past several years, she and Children’s National colleagues have been implementing a new strategy to increase mental health care access: Integrating these services with primary care.

“Often times, a family is with a primary care provider throughout a child’s life into adulthood. It’s a natural, familiar setting where people feel comfortable,” Hodgkinson says. “That makes a primary care provider’s office really fertile ground for integrating mental health services.”

Hodgkinson and coauthors point out in a review paper published in the January 2017 issue of Pediatrics that most children see their primary care provider for annual well visits as well as when they are sick — regardless of household income. Those visits provide ample opportunities for parents to bring up other concerns or for providers to implement screening that could lead to a mental health diagnosis. From there, she explains, that provider can offer mental health support and facilitate a connection with a mental health provider who works in the same office or who works in partnership with the primary care office.

In the review, she and colleagues suggest several strategies for making this idea become a reality. The first step, they agree, is education. Beginning with their fundamental training, primary care doctors and mental health providers need to see their roles as conjoined.

“We really need to change the way people think about primary care,” Hodgkinson says. “Disciplines don’t have to be siloed, where primary care providers do their thing here and mental health providers do their thing there. We should be thinking about how we can bring everyone together under one tent.”

Many psychology training programs have primary care integration rotations, she adds, and an increasing number of health systems like Children’s National now have mental health providers working in the same offices as primary care providers.

But not every clinic has the resources to group providers together under a single roof. Even for those offices, Hodgkinson says, primary care doctors need to develop a workflow that streamlines patients who need mental health services to health care professionals who provide it. In some cases, that might mean making the referral call on patients’ behalf to ensure they get through, walking families through the specific information they will need if they make the call on their own and following up to troubleshoot any problems with access.

“We want to close as many gaps as we can to keep families from falling through the cracks,” she says.

Developing an infrastructure that supports this model also can’t be ignored, Hodgkinson points out. Primary care offices might need to determine how to allocate space to mental health providers, hire dedicated workers to improve access and develop new strategies for billing.

None of this will be easy, she adds, but it will be worth it to make sure that more patients receive needed services.

“Even though we have integrated mental health and primary care at Children’s National, it very much remains a work in progress, and we’re continuing to fine-tune this machine to make it work better,” she says. “But if a patient comes to even one appointment that they might not have made it to in the past, that’s an accomplishment.”