Zika Outbreak Exposes Brazilian Incompetence
What the World Health Organization has declared a global public health emergency is being met with inept government reaction. The enemy is a mosquito whose existence was once under control.
SAO PAULO — Anyone who has listened to or read the explanations and justifications from the Presidential Palace and the Health Ministry regarding the Zika virus outbreak can clearly conclude that Brazil's federal government has yet to grasp the gravity of the situation.
When faced with such a pressing crisis — now officially recognized by the World Health Organization as a "global public health emergency" — the situation requires a lot of information, coordination and mobilization. The federal authorities have neglected all three.
Information is crucial if we are to grasp the full extent of the outbreak. Only then can we efficiently fight against both unnecessary scaremongering and the government's usual inertia. Without knowledge and communication of precise data, it's all too easy for federal, state and municipal authorities to get tangled up in disjointed action, leaving the population at the mercy of the epidemic.
First we need to consider the figures regarding the correlation between Zika and microcephaly. According to the latest epidemiological report, there were 4,180 cases of suspected malformation in Brazil during the second half of 2015, 3,448 of which are still being examined.
Only 732 cases have been fully investigated. Of those, 462 microcephaly diagnoses have been rejected and 270 confirmed (a significant increase from the annual average of 150). The presence of the Zika virus specifically was detected in just six of these 270 cases, though it's important to note that the infection occurs months before the malformation can be diagnosed in babies.
The difficulty is that there is no quick test to confirm the presence of Zika in the body. What's more, microcephaly can also be caused by other infections and genetic conditions.
To make this arduous situation even more complicated, each state government is using different criteria to diagnose microcephaly, an unbelievable coordination failure at the highest level of the Health Ministry. None of this should justify ignoring the clear link between the surge in microcephaly and the Zika virus. The priority now is to fight the Aedes aegyptimosquitoes that carry it.
It's important to remember that this particular mosquito's population was under control in the past. We've lost that control. Before this Zika plague, the Aedes aegypti mosquito was already spreading dengue, leading to an explosion in the number of Brazilian cases — 1.6 million last year, which led to 863 deaths.
A long-lasting solution is to bring public sanitation to the whole country. By solving the decade-old issue of safe water storage and garbage disposal and recycling, we could eliminate the places where the larvae reproduce. But at the current pace, the investments and the amount of work required indicate this could take another four decades. This leaves us with the option of returning to anti-mosquito "battalions," a method created in 1903 by Brazilian scientist Oswaldo Cruz.
Faced with the political and budgetary powerlessness in which she placed her government, all President Dilma Rousseff could manage was to delegate to the army the obligation of rallying the country against a known enemy that was defeated more than a century ago.
Given the extent of the crisis, it's too little. Rousseff has to commit personally to lead local authorities if we are to see the task to the end.