Opinion: Zika will hit hardest for those in poverty

An agent works in pesticide fogging to combat mosquito larvae in Sao Paulo, Brazil (Getty)
An agent works in pesticide fogging to combat mosquito larvae in Sao Paulo, Brazil (Getty)

Being too poor to buy insect repellent shouldn’t mean a life sentence for your newborn child. But that’s exactly the reality facing many pregnant women living in poverty in Brazil.

Today’s declaration from the World Health Organisation that the Zika virus is now a public health emergency acknowledges two things: that the spread of the disease has been explosive, and that the Brazilian government desperately needs international help to deal with it.

It’s a welcome and proactive move by the WHO, particularly after the criticism the organisation received for responding too slowly during the Ebola crisis.

The Zika virus has been linked to a surge of a potentially fatal birth defect known as microcephaly, where babies are born with unusually small heads and underdeveloped brains.

The connection between Zika and microcephaly has yet to be scientifically proven but there is strong evidence of a link. Around 4000 cases of microcephaly have been registered in Brazil in the past four months compared with fewer than 150 cases in all of 2014.

The virus has also been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis in adults.

The heartbreaking truth in Brazil is that the Zika virus presents very different realities for those with money, and those without.

It’s been reported many who have resources have already fled the country, living in virtual exile.

But the majority of the estimated 400,000 pregnant women in Brazil don’t have that option, and daily uncertainty must be excruciating.

I read an Associated Press report that followed the life of a 21-year-old wife and mother. Tainara Lourenco lives in a cobbled together shack on stilts over a giant puddle of fetid water below. Her husband has already had the Zika virus; her two-year-old daughter has had dengue fever. Tainara is five months pregnant. Their home doesn’t have mosquito screens or netting and she says that since this recent outbreak of Zika, the increased demand for insect repellent has made it unaffordable.

Tainara says all she can do is hope if she’s infected it doesn’t affect her baby.

The government has pledged to provide repellent to low-income women and deploy its armed forces to eliminate mosquito-breeding areas. Today’s WHO announcement and the ramping up of international assistance might ensure it happens.

There is one other glimmer of hope for some of the world’s poorest, and it comes from one of the world’s richest.

Just last week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged more than $6.5 billion dollars to help eliminate malaria. That mosquito-borne disease killed an estimated 438,000 people last year.

The same research and eradication efforts could lead the way in preventing further outbreaks of Zika.