Protective measures against the Zika virus © Miguel Gutierrez
The number of Zika cases is stagnating in Brazil. But women are still afraid to give birth to children with microcephaly. Meanwhile, authorities are getting tangled up in bureaucratic chaos.
A year after the government declared a health emergency due to the then unknown Zika virus, the number of illnesses has stagnated. New rapid tests also raise hopes of better diagnosing the disease in the future.
Nevertheless, the risk of infection remains high, especially in the summer months. Lax prevention could lead to new waves of illnesses. But instead of helping in an unbureaucratic way, Brazil's government is getting lost in the bureaucratic jungle.
Brain damage in babies
At the end of 2015, the media knew no other topic overnight: massive brain damage in babies, called microcephaly, caused by the Zika virus, a pathogen previously considered harmless. Pregnant women panicked, and politicians got nervous, too.
In mid-February, 220 people across the country.000 soldiers against the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the virus. Later, the postponement of the Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro in August was considered. Since then, Zika has disappeared from the headlines. Economic crisis and corruption scandals currently occupy Brazilians more.
Government also recently expressed calm; it expects Zika cases to stagnate in 2017. These are registered at all only since the beginning of 2016. Before that, there was neither information about nor tests for the mysterious virus. In 2016, a total of around 212.000 Zika cases reported. Usually the disease is harmless, but in fetuses it can cause terrible things.
Shock still runs deep
Between October 2015 and mid-December 2016, 2.289 cases of microcephaly registered. But here, too, the government is now showing optimism, as the current December figures are reportedly 86 percent below those of 2015. "This is under control," Health Minister Ricardo Barros said recently. 'The scare has made people pay more attention'."
The shock still runs deep. A representative study published just before Christmas found that more than half of Brazilian women aged 18 to 39 are currently avoiding pregnancy because of the Zika threat. In the northeast of the country, i.e. where by far the most malformations have been registered, it is even two thirds of all women. In November 2015, the Ministry of Health had advised women to postpone pregnancies because of the epidemic.
In addition, in December 2015, the ministry had announced the rapid and non-bureaucratic distribution of mosquito spray to pregnant women. All pregnant women registered in government social programs should thus be protected from the Aedes aegypti mosquito. In addition to the Zika virus, it also transmits dengue fever, with about 1.5 million cases annually and about 1.000 deaths, as well as chikungunya fever, with about 263.000 cases in 2016.
Scientists are alarmed
But the launch of the campaign, originally planned for February 2016, was delayed because of problems with the tendering process for the products to be purchased. The project turned into a bureaucratic farce. To date, officials do not know when the spray cans and flasks were distributed to the 474 currently.000 pregnant women registered with the "Bolsa Familia" social program are delivered.
It is high time – the Aedes aegypti mosquito is particularly active in the current high summer. It needs high temperatures and high rainfall to reproduce. Brazil has been getting more rain than usual since November, scientists are alarmed. Without proper protection, pregnant women face a new wave of Zika illnesses, experts warn.
One reason for hope is the new triple rapid tests developed by the government research institute Fiocruz. This will allow for rapid screening for dengue, Zika and chikungunya. The diseases have similar symptoms, which has made it difficult to diagnose them accurately – and probably skewed statistics in recent years. So many Zika cases may have been mistaken for dengue.
Delivery of the new tests to the Ministry of Health is expected to begin in the next few weeks. That should put them ahead of mosquito repellents to rattled Brazilians.