Brazil struggles with Zika outbreak

Brazilian soldiers empty bottles filled with water in a person's backyard to not allow mosquitoes a breeding place.

Brazilian soldiers empty bottles filled with water in a person’s backyard to not allow mosquitoes a breeding place.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazil is reeling from an unprecedented outbreak of the Zika virus, which in the worst cases affects the fetuses of pregnant woman, causing malformation of the babies’ brains.

The virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and the first case here was only recorded in 2014. It is believed that the virus was imported into Brazil by a traveler or athlete from the Pacific islands during the World Cup.

There are already 3,718 cases of suspected microcephaly in Brazilian babies, which means that their heads measure only 32 centimeters or less at birth. The majority of reported cases have been in Northeastern Brazil, the hottest and poorest region of the country. This has caused the US government to warn pregnant American women from traveling to Brazil, and has worried some Brazilians that if the outbreak is not handled quickly it could scare off some of the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists expected to arrive for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in August.

But what is the Brazilian government to do? Brazil is a tropical country with a lot of heat and rain. The poorest Brazilians live in shacks in slums that have many places where garbage accumulates as well as pools of water and sewage, perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. As one American expert rather gloatingly noted recently, the Zika virus is not going to spread like fire in the US because most Americans have air-conditioning and screens on the windows in their homes that keep the mosquitos out. Poor Brazilians do not have that luxury.

So the Brazilian government has done as it always has: Launched a public relations campaign through ads on television, radio and newspapers, telling the population to fight the breeding grounds of mosquitoes by making sure they do not have pools of water lurking around their homes in old containers, under potted plants and in any junk they may have accumulated in their backyards. But this is the continuation of a long-term campaign in its battle against the equally mosquito-borne pestilence of dengue fever. Municipal officials and occasionally army troops are annually deployed across cities and towns in Brazil, going door-to-door to inspect homes for mosquito-breeding locations. If they do find stagnant water pools, they try to drain them, and if that is not possible they pour insecticide into the water to kill the larvae of the mosquitoes.

But, meanwhile, the numbers of Brazilians infected with dengue and Zika keep skyrocketing. According to the Ministry of Health, the number of dengue cases in the first 20 days of this year jumped 48 percent, reaching 73,000 cases. In 2015, there were an eye-popping 1.6 million cases of dengue in Brazil. In dengue fever, the symptoms are high fever and acute pain in the eyes and joints of patients. In the case of Zika infection, the victim also gets red blotches on their skin across his/her body. There is also a more dangerous version of dengue fever that apart from causing all of the aforementioned symptoms causes internal bleeding.

The Brazilian government has now said its priority is to help with the work being done to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus. They hope to have human trials for a vaccine 18 months from now.

The scary aspect of the Zika virus is that when a pregnant woman catches it in her first three months of pregnancy, she most times passes it on to her fetus. Unfortunately, tests can only detect whether a fetus has been infected with the virus from the 24th week of gestation and onward. Which means that a fetus will already be six months old when the Zika virus can be detected. That causes many complications in that it makes it harder for a woman to have an abortion at that late stage in the pregnancy. Brazil has been battling with this, since being a Catholic nation abortion is strictly banned except if the mother was raped or could die if she brought the pregnancy to gestation.

A Supreme Court justice said recently he believed that women with fetuses affected by the Zika virus should be allowed to have abortions, since these babies will most likely be born with malformed brains. But no one seems to be pushing this aspect of dealing with the crisis. As one Brazilian commentator quipped: “Rich Brazilian women are not affected too much by the restrictions because they can afford to pay the $1,800 to have an illegal abortion in a private clinic, while poor women who cannot afford that remain resigned to their fate.”

The panic that this has generated here in Brazil has caused many well-to-do pregnant women to move to Miami in the US for the duration of their pregnancies, returning to Brazil only after their babies are born. Poor women obviously do not have that option. So the Brazilian government should step up efforts to control the mosquito population in Brazil, while work is being done on a vaccine for Zika and dengue too. Fumigating areas with too many mosquitoes, encouraging Brazilians not to throw their trash everywhere, and handing out free insect-repellent in poorer areas would go a long way in controlling the ever growing number of dengue and Zika victims.

This column was printed in Arab News on Feb. 14, 2016: http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/880281

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