Science, Tech & Environment

Zika is a window into a much bigger story in Brazil

This story is a part of a series

Her Planet

This story is a part of a series

Her Planet

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Brazilian soldiers distribute educational flyers about the Zika virus in São Paulo, the country's largest city.

Credit:

Anne Bailey

As the country where doctors first noticed a suspected link between the Zika virus and serious birth defects, Brazil is the epicenter of the Zika-related global health emergency.

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But Zika is only part of a much bigger story in Brazil. It's a story about mosquitoes, public health, water and women, which is why PRI'sThe World has sent its Across Womens' Lives team to Brazil for the next two weeks. They’re there to report on how Zika fits into the story of Brazilian women’s struggles to improve their lives in a time of rapid and often disturbing environmental change.

Zika, of course, is grabbing the spotlight because of its sudden emergence in the country and its suspected but still unconfirmed link to the shocking rise in the prevalence of microcephaly, a congenital condition that causes babies to be born with small heads and brains.

“The messaging is all about Zika” right now, says The World’s environment reporter Carolyn Beeler, “because there’s so much news out there” about it. Even in São Paulo, far from the hardest hit areas in Brazil’s northeast, Beeler says soldiers are handing out pamphlets instructing people on how to reduce standing water in which mosquitoes can breed around their homes.

But the Zika virus is carried by the same mosquitoes that can carry other sometimes much more virulent and deadly viruses, such as dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. Other mosquitoes found in Brazil can carry malaria. And those diseases are often as big or bigger problems in Brazil than Zika.

“We were in a favela [in São Paulo] and they're still concerned more about dengue,” Beeler says, “which is sort of right, because dengue killed more than 800 people in Brazil in 2015, about double the number that [it] killed in 2014.” The Brazilian government is also very worried about dengue. It reports that the country logged more than 1.5 million cases in 2015, nearly twice as many as 2014, and that cases were up nearly 50 percent in January this year over last January.

The stark rise in dengue and the sudden surge in Zika are both likely tied to an increased presence of the Aedes aegypti, or yellow fever, mosquito in Brazil. And that, in turn, is likely tied to a rise in standing water — water pooling both haphazardly in trash and purposefully in things like cisterns, widely deployed to catch water in areas without indoor plumbing or hit by a recent record drought. When the drought broke as the current El Niño brought downpours to much of the country, the amount of standing water surged, likely leading to a mosquito population explosion.

While the diseases share common sources, the focus on Zika control right now makes sense, even if that virus might be less problematic overall. “They're carried by the same mosquito,” Beeler says, so “any work to reduce the spread of Zika is also going to help reduce the spread of dengue” and other diseases.

Over the next two weeks, the Across Women’s Lives team will be reporting on the lives of women effected by Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses. They’ll be looking at efforts to control the insects through public health initiatives and cutting edge genetic research. And they’ll be exploring the changing picture of water in Brazil and how women in the country are affected by and working to address a range of problems with it — too dirty, too little, and even too much.

As for how they’re protecting themselves from the same mosquito-borne threats they’re reporting on, Beeler says The World’s team has gone to Brazil well-armed. They’ve gotten their shots, “we’re spraying ourselves with repellent before we go out into the field, [and] we have some long sleeve hooded shirts that have built-in insect repellent,” all resources that many Brazilians don’t have access to.

Beeler adds, “one important thing to note is that this disproportionally affects the poor, who have open windows because they don’t have air-conditioning, and might have standing water because of trash in their neighborhood. So, for some people, it's much more of a risk than others. We’re pretty confident that we can keep ourselves safe.”