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zika

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March of Dimes

When Germana Soares was three months pregnant, she went to see her doctor.

She was worried, as any expectant mother would be, because she had an itchy rash across her body. But since itchiness was her only symptom, her doctor simply treated her for allergies and sent her home with some medication.

It seemed to work.


Four days later, her rash had cleared up, and she stopped worrying. The rest of her pregnancy progressed relatively normally.

But when her son was born, the doctor noticed something wasn’t quite right.

Her son's head was slightly smaller than it should be, and it was a little asymmetrical, with the left side somewhat smaller than the right. Remembering her rash from months prior, her doctor ordered a series of tests.

Her son was diagnosed with microcephaly.

This condition not only causes a baby’s head to be smaller than normal, but it can also cause a number of other lifelong health problems, including intellectual and developmental disabilities. And in Soares' case, it was likely caused by a Zika virus infection (transmitted by an Aedes aegypti mosquito) while she was pregnant.

A mother in Recife, a city in Pernambuco, Brazil, holding her child with microcephaly in May 2016. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Microcephaly is usually considered a relatively rare neurological condition, but in Brazil at that time — especially in the northeastern state of Pernambuco where Soares lives — it wasn’t. In fact, her state was at the center of a Zika pandemic that hit South America between 2015 and 2016, and it saw a huge spike in the number of microcephaly cases as a result.

By Dec. 12, 2015, Pernambuco had reported 874 cases of microcephaly — more than any other region in the country.

Soares and her husband were afraid when they got the news.

They were scared of prejudice and discrimination, she says through a translator. They were so scared that they decided they would have to hide their son’s illness from the world. They thought it was the only way they could protect him from the kids who might pick on him, the adults who might make assumptions about him, and the society that might exclude him simply because he was born different.

But when Soares took her son to his one-month doctor appointment, something wonderful happened: She met Gleise Kelly, another mother of a baby with microcephaly, and they became friends.

They talked about their babies, how they both felt alone against the world, and how they felt misunderstood. Just talking to another person who was going through a similar experience helped them both feel so much better.

And then, over the next few months as they went to the doctor, they started meeting other moms too. They all exchanged phone numbers to continue their discussions outside the waiting room. They set up a chat group on a phone app called WhatsApp.

But Soares and Kelly wanted to go one step further, so they created the Facebook group União Mães de Anjos — the Union of Mothers of Angels.

Soares and four other mothers from the União Mães de Anjos. Image via the União Mães de Anjos Facebook page, used with permission.

The Facebook group started with just eight mothers, Soares says, but within two months, they had 200. Today, about 400 mothers across Pernambuco have joined.

The page became a way to share stories and to get advice on how to cope with the disease and with prejudice. It became a place to ask questions, a place to share resources, and an emotional support group. But slowly, the group also transformed into a way for them to make themselves known to the rest of the community — a community they felt wasn’t accepting of them or their children.

“I won’t sit around,” Soares says through the translator. “I am going to do everything I can to fight for my child’s future and I am not going to just wait for people to include him in society.” And the entire group of mothers feels the same way.

A group photo of some of the União Mães de Anjos mothers and their children. Image via the União Mães de Anjos Facebook page, used with permission.

União Mães de Anjos became their way to raise awareness about microcephaly and to fight for inclusion on behalf of their children. It gave them a voice.

And it worked. Their group started getting attention in the local press, and the mayor of Pernambuco reached out to them to organize a meeting so that he could better understand what they were going through and what the government could do to help them.

The meeting has now turned into a weekly phone call or in-person meeting, allowing the mothers to advocate on behalf of their children. And Soares says she has begun to see results. For example, there are now more neurologists working in the state to support them.

They also receive donations of diapers, food, and clothes, and the group distributes those across the state.

Of course, there is still work to be done.

Fighting prejudice doesn’t happen overnight, Soares says. Instead, you have to work at fighting it from the ground up — starting inside homes and schools — so that change can happen naturally.

“People should respect everyone’s children. They are human beings. They did not choose to be born this way — they are all victims of an illness that was unknown at the time,” she says. “Everyone thinks things will never happen to them — only to others. That is, until it actually does [happen to you].”

Germana Soares and her son Guilherme. Image via Germana Soares, used with permission.

Soares' son is now 18 months old, and while he shows some motor skill developmental delays due to his microcephaly, he is showing improvement every day thanks to some early stimulation and therapy.

Microcephaly exists and it isn’t going away just because people are uncomfortable with it, Soares says. The best thing they can do is raise awareness of it, help those that need it, and fight prejudice so that every child gets the respect and acceptance they deserve.

Heroes

It looks like a takeout container, but it might be our best bet to fight Zika.

An innovative approach to battling Zika you should know about.

Soon, the solution to Zika could arrive in something as simple as a takeout box.

Image from Recode/YouTube.


For the past several years, researchers in Australia have been at work trying to develop a way to put a stop to dengue, a virus that — like Zika — is spread by way of a certain breed of mosquitoes.

The result is what's called a Mozzie Box, and Susan Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recently demonstrated how it works.

The Mozzie Box works by intentionally breeding disease carrying mosquitos, with a twist.

In the Mozzie Box, Aedes mosquitoes — the same kind that transmit diseases like Zika, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and more — are bred.

And how exactly is breeding more mosquitoes the solution to a mosquito-borne illness?

The Mozzie Box mosquito eggs contain a bacteria called Wolbachia, which renders the grown mosquitoes essentially harmless (minus a few itchy bites here and there).

In other words:


GIFs from Recode/YouTube.

When the Mozzie Box mosquitoes fly off into the wild and begin mating, the Wolbachia bacteria is transmitted to their offspring.

That bacteria will then be passed down to future generations.

As time goes on, fewer mosquitoes will have the capability to carry Zika (or those other diseases), and the virus will become much less of an issue.


There are times when science can be so freaking cool, and this is definitely one of them.

The key to stopping Zika might lie in mosquito STDs. How cool is that?

But why is it so important to take steps like these? For one:

The 2016 Summer Olympics are scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, one of the areas hit hardest by Zika.

A number of athletes, such as Spanish basketball star Pau Gasol, have expressed concern over the virus and are considering skipping the games.

Despite the worry, the World Health Organization has advised against cancelling or moving the Olympics, writing, "Based on the current assessment of Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 countries in the Americas, there is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games."

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

So even though the Olympics may go on as planned, that doesn't make the virus any less worrisome for the world as a whole.

The virus has been connected with birth defects in children and possible neurological problems in adults.

The most common concern is that mothers who contract Zika may give birth to babies with microcephaly, a condition where a baby is born with a much smaller head than expected.

A mother holds a 3-month-old girl with microcephaly. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Help from governments sometimes seems out of reach, making finding a solution in the private sector that much more important.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden delivered an emotional call to the U.S. Congress, pleading for them to take the threat of Zika seriously.

"Imagine that you’re standing by and you see someone drowning, and you have the ability to stop them from drowning, but you can’t," Frieden said. "Now multiply that by 1,000 or 100,000. That’s what it feels like to know how to change the course of an epidemic and not be able to do it."

Frieden speaks about the Zika crisis on May 26, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Maybe Mozzie Boxes will help bring an end to Zika and other dangerous diseases. Maybe they'll inspire others to take up important innovative work. Maybe they'll help make the world a better place, now and for future generations.

There's already been so much progress in how we treat, prevent, and test for dangerous diseases. Here's hoping that such innovation continues.

You can watch Susan Desmond-Hellmann's Mozzie Box demonstration below: