Beware of the scaremongers

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

This column apppeared in Arab News on June 05, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazil is constantly being criticized by outsiders who love poking holes in the reputation of the country. With record unemployment, two digit annual inflation, the worst performing economy in the first semester of 2016, the ongoing impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and ongoing outbreaks of dengue and Zika viruses, there are plenty of negative things to criticize in the country.

But it is when exaggeration gets the best of people’s criticism that one cannot stand still and not rectify their wildly inaccurate utterances. Two recent pronouncements come to mind: One was a petition that was signed by 150 prominent doctors and scientists warning that the Rio Olympics in August had to be canceled or moved elsewhere because of the risk of the Zika virus being picked up by participants in the sporting event and then spreading the disease around the world. The other pronouncement was that the violence in Rio de Janeiro was so acute that foreigners should just stay away from the Olympics if they wanted to remain alive.

The signatories of the petition said that the Zika epidemic was very severe in Rio de Janeiro; that the disease was recently found to be more dangerous than previously thought, and that Rio’s public health infrastructure was already overwhelmed and would not be able to deal with the larger number of cases during the Olympics.

The World Health Organization did not agree with the dire warnings, saying, “Canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” It noted that Brazil was among 60 countries where the virus was present, and that there was no public health justification for postponing or canceling the games.

The worried doctors and scientists claim that the 500,000 foreign tourists expected at the Rio Olympics will be perfect carriers of the virus back to their home countries. But a Cambridge University professor disagreed in a BBC interview, saying that August is the coolest month in Rio due to it being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, which will consequently cause a decrease in the reproduction of the mosquitoes that transmit the virus.

While Rio de Janeiro has an unfortunate reputation of being violent and crime-ridden, the security situation has greatly improved over the past 10 years, with heavy police patrols in the tourist areas such as Copacabana. Even so, the International Business Times ran a scare-mongering story this week claiming that 41,000 deaths a year in Brazil are due to firearms, and that 21 cities out of a recent study of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Brazil. These figures may be true, but it is also true that most of this violence is being done by poor people against other poor people.

To beef up security in Rio during the Olympics, the Brazilian government will be deploying 38,000 military personnel to patrol the most dangerous parts of the cities and an additional 47,000 security forces from the civil, military and federal police as well as Civil Defense and National Force members.

Brazil is not a paradise of non-violence and vibrant health, but it is not the hellhole that many foreign observers make it out to be. It would be a shame if their negative scaremongering manages to scare away tourists that are thinking of visiting Brazil during the Olympics or afterward. It is a beautiful and friendly country that deserves to be visited by as many foreigners as possible.

http://www.arabnews.com/node/934806/columns

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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