Talk to Al Jazeera: In the Field

Zika virus: ‘We have more questions than answers’

As the WHO investigates the massive outbreak of microcephaly in Brazil, we travel to ground zero of the epidemic.

Each February, Brazil hosts one of the most colourful and euphoric gatherings in the world, and millions came to celebrate the 2016 carnival in Rio de Janeiro. 

Meanwhile, the city of Recife in the northeast of the country is at the heart of a global health crisis over the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that is suspected of causing birth defects in babies.

There’s an unusual increase in the number of cases of microcephaly among newborns, a condition in which babies are born with smaller than normal heads, causing their brains to not develop properly and impacting their overall development and health.

“We have more or less 15 exams per day here [in the hospital]. Out of those 15 exams, we have an average of five exams with patients with suspected Zika virus, patients who had the rash on the skin, but with microcephaly, I believe, we have a new case every week,” says Dr Alex Souza from the Maternal Infant Institute of Pernambuco. 

It is a serious condition that cannot be cured, and many families there are already poor and cannot afford all the necessary medication.

“All my debts are accumulating … the medicine is expensive, the government is not giving anything. There is a medicine … that she needs to take, she cannot miss it. [It] costs 80 reais [$20]. Apart from that, there are eye drops the doctors said she needs to use, not to mention a medicine for her nose. So, I need to stop paying my bills so I can buy things for her,” says Nadja Bezerra, a mother who gave birth to a girl with microcephaly. 

Brazil’s president, Dilma Roussef, has promised that the government will do everything it can to help the families financially. And globally, efforts are under way to understand what is behind the outbreak. Last week, US President Barack Obama suggested spending $1.8bn to fight it. 

Meanwhile, scientists are exploring different methods to stop the spread of the disease.

“Zika is very new [for us]. We have more questions than answers at this point. We have right now in Brazil a group of scientists that … are trying to understand everything that [they] can. We knew that the zika virus existed, but nobody worked with [it] because it was in Africa, very content,” says Professor Margareth Capurro of the Bio-Medicine Institute at the University of Sao Paolo. 

So what is the true scale of this crisis? Is Brazil, and the region, losing the battle against the virus? How far is the world from finding a cure? And will the Brazilian government help the mothers and their babies? 

Today on Talk to Al Jazeera, we travel to the centre of the crisis to find out how the children and parents are coping, whether they receive the help they have been promised, and we talk to a scientist about a possible way to stop the disease.

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