Having a baby in the Zika capital

Juliana da Silva Candido

More than 1,400 babies with microcephaly have been registered in and around Recife, in north-eastern Brazil. For parents it’s hard to come to terms with the implications, and for pregnant women a cause of huge anxiety.

Juliana Candido

It’s bath time for baby Enzo Candido Freitas – in a blue plastic tub on the kitchen table. His mother, Juliana, tenderly wraps her six-week-old baby in a towel as Jobson, his father, hands her a nappy.

It seems like a normal happy domestic scene but I can see that Enzo is not a normal baby. His head is abnormally small, he is likely to be brain-damaged. His eyesight is also affected and his little legs are displaced.

Enzo has microcephaly – an underdeveloped brain. Recife, capital of Pernambuco state in the north-east, has become in effect the Zika capital of Brazil.

Media captionThe story of six-week-old Enzo – a suspected Zika baby

The Zika virus, carried by a mosquito, is suspected of being the cause of an explosion in cases of microcephaly here.

Juliana and Jobson play with Enzo on the bed before putting him into his cot. As Juliana kisses his feet she tells me, “He will be my comfort and joy on sad days, my eternal baby.”

She knows her baby has brain damage but her husband refuses to acknowledge it. “Maybe not for others but for me he’s going to be a normal kid – he’s going to study and do everything a normal child does,” insists Jobson.

I go with Enzo and his parents to meet the doctor who was the first to realise that something out of the ordinary was happening in Recife. Dr Vanessa van der Linden examines Enzo and gently explains to his parents that he has the classic symptoms of microcephaly.

Find out more

Panorama: The Zika Baby Crisis is broadcast on Monday 7 March at 20:30. You can catch up after broadcast via the BBC iPlayer.

Van der Linden started seeing more and more babies with abnormally small heads last autumn – three in one day in one hospital, when before there had only been a handful of cases each year in the city. The babies had unusual scarring of the brain, as the doctor showed me on a CAT scan. “There was something different about these cases, probably a new pathological agent or a new disease,” she says.

That new pathological agent seems almost certainly to be the Zika virus. The theory is that it somehow crossed from some pregnant mothers, who had been bitten by a mosquito, into some babies in the womb – causing microcephaly.

As the doctor manipulates Enzo’s limbs and tests his reflexes, Juliana becomes more distraught and breaks down in tears. “He is not going to be like other kids,” she says, “but I hope he will progress day by day and we will strive for that together – myself, my husband and my son.”

Jobson comforts his wife. “I will always love Enzo,” he says. “He’s my son and I’ve got to love him.”

Adenilda Lima

Media captionAdenilda is pregnant and lives in Recife at the heart of the Zika crisis

I went with health workers to visit one of 400 pregnant women in a study of mothers-to-be who have been bitten by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus and then developed a tell-tale rash.

Adenilda Lima is apprehensive as a sample of her blood is taken and she is questioned about the redness she had on her arms and legs.

Doctors suspect that being bitten and developing the rash in the first three months of the pregnancy is the riskiest time. Adenilda shows me pictures of her ultrasound scans which indicate she is in the clear but she will not know for certain until the baby is born.

Adenilda already has two children and she cries as she tells me what having a disabled baby would mean to the family.

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