Brazil is losing the battle against the mosquito spreading the Zika virus, President Dilma Rousseff said yesterday, calling for a national effort to eradicate the insect.
“We do not have a vaccine for Zika yet. The only thing we can do is fight the mosquito,” she told reporters during a visit to a command centre for the Zika crisis.
The virus has been linked to thousands of cases of babies being born in Brazil with microcephaly - meaning they have abnormally small heads and brains that have not developed properly.
Rousseff said tests for the development of a vaccine will begin next week at the Butantan Institute, one of Brazil’s leading biomedical research centres in Sao Paulo.
Experts say it could take years to come up with a vaccine for Zika given the lack of medical knowledge about the virus, though one leading developer said that a vaccine for emergency use could be ready before year-end.
Rousseff called on Brazilians to eliminate still water in puddles and open storage tanks in their homes where the insect breeds. On February 13, more than 200,000 soldiers will join a nationwide effort to eliminate mosquito infestations.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika also spreads the dengue virus, which infected 1.65mn people in Brazil last year, 863 of whom died, in the country’s worst outbreak of the tropical disease.
Brazil eradicated the mosquito in the 1950s using chemicals that are now banned, officials said.
Meanwhile doctors said children born with abnormally small heads and brain defects linked to the outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil are also suffering serious damage to their eyesight and possibly their hearing.
Half of the 135 babies being evaluated at a rehabilitation centre in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife have limited vision due to deformed optic nerves and retinas, and many are cross-eyed, ophthalmologist Camila Ventura said.
“Their eyes are scarred for life,” said Ventura. “Between 40% and 50% of them have serious eyesight defects.”
The babies are some of the 3,700 cases reported in Brazil since last year of newborns with a neurological condition called microcephaly that is associated with the mosquito-borne Zika virus sparking a health scare across the Americas.
Doctors at Recife’s Altino Ventura rehab centre are testing the babies’ vision and hearing to determine what they are able to see and hear, before giving them therapy to stimulate their brains.
Daniele Ferreira Santos, 29, said her two-month-old son Juan Pedro could hear alright but was having difficulty seeing. “I am very distressed. We do not know how badly he has been affected and whether there will be other problems,” she said, trying to calm her agitated crying baby.
Ventura said the babies needed to have therapy to stimulate their eyesight in the first three to six months of their lives or else their vision would never improve.
In a letter to the editor published last week by the British journal The Lancet, Ventura and her team alerted the medical community to the eyesight problems found in Brazilian children with microcephaly thought to be caused by a Zika infection caught by mothers in the early stages of their pregnancies.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday that the virus is “spreading explosively” and could infect as many as 4mn people across the Americas. Page 18
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