Brazil’s Health Minister Marcelo Castro yesterday said that the Zika epidemic in his country is worse than believed because in 80% of the cases the infected people have no symptoms.
In an interview with Reuters, Castro said Brazil will start mandatory reporting of cases by local governments next week when most states will have labs equipped to test for Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has quickly spread through Latin America.
Castro said Brazilian researchers are convinced that Zika is the cause of the 3,700 confirmed and suspected cases of newborns with brain defects in Brazil. He said the virus cannot be transmitted from person to person, only by mosquito.
Brazil will follow the US decision last week to prohibit blood donations from people who have been infected with Zika, he said. The disease, detected for the first time in the Americas in Brazil last year, has no vaccine and no known cure.
Meanwhile for scores of women in the epicentre of the Zika outbreak in Brazil, the joy of pregnancy has given way to fear.
In the sprawling coastal city of Recife, panic has struck maternity wards since Zika was linked to wave of brain damage in newborns.
In about four-fifths of cases, Zika causes no noticeable symptoms so women have no idea if they contracted it during pregnancy. Test kits for the virus are only effective in the first week of infection and only available at private clinics at a cost of 900 reais, more than the monthly minimum wage.
At Recife’s IMIP hospital, dozens of soon-to-be mothers wait anxiously for ultrasound scans that will indicate whether the child they are carrying has a shrunken head and damaged brain, a condition called microcephaly. The hospital has already had 160 babies born there with the deformity since August.
“It’s very frightening. I’m worried my daughter will have microcephaly,” says Elisangela Barros, 40, shedding a tear behind her thick-rimmed glasses. “My neighbourhood is poor and full of mosquitoes, trash and has no running water. Five of my neighbours have Zika.”
Women like Barros, who live in crowded, muddy slums of Brazil’s chaotic cities, have little defence against the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika, as well as other diseases such as dengue and yellow fever. They often cannot afford insect repellent and have little access to family planning.
Shocking images of babies with birth defects have made many women think twice about getting pregnant.
Doctors worry the outbreak will lead to an increase in dangerous clandestine abortions in the majority-Catholic country. Under Brazilian law, terminating pregnancies is illegal except in cases of rape and when the mothers’ life is at risk.
The rapid spread of Zika to 22 countries in the Americas has prompted some governments to advise women to delay having children. El Salvador recommended women not get pregnant for two years.
It has also triggered debate on liberalising abortion in the region, where many countries have strict laws.
“Fear is growing among women because this is a new disease that we know little about. We don’t have many answers,” said Adriana Scavuzzi, a gynaecologist at the IMIP hospital.
World Health Organisation officials say there is no scientific proof that Zika stunts the development of the fetus, causing microcephaly, but it is strongly suspected.
Ninety percent of children born with the condition will have retarded mental and physical development, and will need specialised care for the rest of their lives. There is no certainty what they will be able to see or hear, or when they will learn to walk and talk, Scavuzzi said.
Scavuzzi compared the emergency to the Thalidomide tragedy of the 1960s when thousands of children, mostly in Europe, were born with deformed limbs due to the use of the pill to help pregnant women with insomnia and morning sickness.
“It will be worse than the Thalidomide generation because then the cause could be withdrawn from the market,” she said. “But how do you withdraw from circulation a mosquito that has lived with us for so long?”
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