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Volunteers Help Brazilian Babies With Microcephaly

Japanese baths, Indian massages and other alternative care methods — along with old-fashioned babysitting — help families in Brazil facing the illnesses caused by the Zika virus.

Baby suffering from microcephaly and his mother, in a hospital near Recife
Baby suffering from microcephaly and his mother, in a hospital near Recife
Kleber Nunes

RECIFE — Rosely Fontoura is a full-time nurse who spends her weeks working with pregnant women and new mothers. But lately, the 31-year-old has also begun volunteering on Sundays, offering free classes to teach parents about ofuro (Japanese baths), shantala (Indian massages) and how to make wrap slings to carry their babies.

The motivation for Fontoura's extra (and alternative) help has been the sharp rise of microcephaly across Brazil, with 1,779 recent cases reported here in the coastal city of Recife.

Whether teaching Asian massage techniques or providing much-needed babysitting help, more and more Brazilians are finding different ways to volunteer with affected families. "I'm not rich, but I have experience and expertise in this area," Fontoura says. "I saw that I could help by teaching parents these techniques."

The smiles on mothers' faces at the end of her three-hour classes are "rewarding," the nurse says.


Shantala and ofuro, which can be done using lukewarm water, help soothe babies suffering from microcephaly, a serious neonatal head malformation. Wrap slings, which keep babies close to their mothers' warmth, produce a similar effect on the babies, who often present higher than average levels of irritability.

Alexsandra de Lima, 36, took part in Fontoura's first class. She now practices the techniques herself on her four-month-old son, Pedro Henrique. "He's a lot calmer now," she says.


Fontoura discovered volunteer work while a university student, assisting residents in poor communities around Recife. Now she dreams of exporting her classes to other Brazilian states.

Human resources manager Aurea Negromonte, 36, has also begun volunteering with patients of microcephaly, which is believed to be caused by the Zika virus that has been spreading around Latin America.

Negromonte has been involved in charity work since she was 12, and is currently assisting Jaqueline Vieira, 25, the mother of five-month-old Daniel; Jaqueline is unemployed, and her husband abandoned her after Daniel was born with microcephaly.


Not only does Negromonte accompany Jaqueline to her medical appointments, she also collects donations for the family, helps with housework and cares for the elder son, João Paulo, 9.


"Two weeks ago, Jaqueline was down with chikungunya. She couldn't really move, so I called two friends and went to her house to do some cleaning and help take care of the children," Negromonte says.

On weekends, she takes care of João Paulo full-time. "Daniel has spasms and cries a lot, which takes up all of Jaqueline's attention. So I take the older brother for a fun day out so he doesn't feel too sad or left out," she explains.

Kleber Alencastro, a student, is a member of an association for families affected by rare diseases — the Aliança de Mães e Famílias Raras — where he volunteers three times a week, assisting families with babies suffering from microcephaly.

Every Thursday, Alencastro leaves the northern part of Recife, where he lives, for a rehabilitation center in the western part of the city. There, he spends the whole day taking care of babies. "I look after them while the parents are busy making appointments or speaking with the doctors," he says. "I try to entertain the babies and keep them calm."


On weekends, Kleber spends part of his time visiting the families he works with. "I go there and chat with the mothers, since most of them can't count on family support and many have been abandoned by their husbands," Kleber says. "I also help them with the housework."

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