We are incredibly lucky to live in Australia. We can choose to start a family and then have the support of world-class medical care, yet pregnancy is still a time where we are nervous and unsure of what lies ahead. So imagine you’re young, live in a Brazilian city of stifling heat, you’re alone and you’re pregnant. Unable to afford insect repellent, you’ve been infected with the Zika virus – and your baby will be born with deformities as a result of one tiny mozzie bite.
It’s the tragic and heartbreaking reality for hundreds of Brazilian mothers, left holding babies born with microcephaly – abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains – a result of contracting the mosquito-borne virus now prevalent in Latin America.
“Our pain is one that no mother ever wants to feel,” new mum Danielle Santos says about her baby Juan Pedro (above).
“When the night comes, I ask myself, is this really happening to me?”
Investigative journalist Amos Roberts travelled to Brazil and met three mothers – Danielle, Letitia and Cleane – now with no choice but to anxiously wait and see how the deformities will impact their children.
“It’s a time bomb on slow release,” Amos tells Babyology.
“Will they be able to walk or talk?
“This is the beginning of a generation of children born with something wrong with them.”
While the growing problem of the Zika virus is now the focus of “enormous scientific and media attention”, the outcomes for these babies are unknown.
Researching for his Dateline story, to air tonight on SBS, Amos says hospitals are full of pregnant women nervously waiting for ultrasounds to find out if their children have microcephaly.
Because of an insect bite, their newborn could suffer from seizures, intellectual disability, hyperactivity, impaired motor skills, blindness and deafness.
“You can imagine how scared they must be,” Amos says.
Yet, in the face of incredible adversity, the mothers are staying strong, determined to help their babies get through their early years while doing all they can to lessen the impact of the condition. And they’re all full of love and devotion for their babies.
“There were 50 to 60 parents with babies with microcephaly at a drop-in,” Amos says.
Told how to help stimulate their child’s hearing or eyesight, these women were “soaking up the information, keen to learn what to do”, says Amos.
“The babies’ heads are so small, the impact that must have on the brain…” he says.
“The children cry all the time, they can’t settle. Some mums are coping with this on their own, abandoned after their babies were born.
“These mothers are warriors. So strong, so determined.”
Women in Brazil are being told to “avoid” getting bitten, especially during pregnancy, or delay pregnancy while the virus is rife and the world waits for a vaccine.
“Pregnancy is a fraught time anyway for mothers, so imagine being told that for nine months you can’t get bitten by a mozzie?” Amos says.
“It’s the tropics, extremely hot…stinking hot. The humidity is oppressing. It’s not practical to cover up. If you’re poor you can’t afford repellent. If you’re middle class you may have air conditioning and be able to reduce the spread with mosquito netting.”
And postponing the dream of having children is too big an ask – and sometimes not a choice – for many, even with the threat of having a severely disabled baby.
The Brazilian health ministry has promised to provide the 7500 extra health professionals who will be required to care for these children into the future. But in the middle of a crippling recession, the government can’t even pay for the health workers it already employs.
“This is mainly to make people (in Australia) understand how lucky we are,” Amos says of his report.
Love in the Time of Zika is on Dateline tonight, March 22 at 9.30pm on SBS.
(images via SBS Dateline)