Anguish for Brazilian families amid Zika fallout

AFP

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Mateus (L) and Kleisse tend to their two-month-old son Pietro, suffering from microcephalia caught through an Aedes aegypti mosquito bite, at the Obras Sociais Irma Dulce hospital in Salvador, Brazil on January 27, 2016. AFP/Christophe Simon Mateus (L) and Kleisse tend to their two-month-old son Pietro, suffering from microcephalia caught through an Aedes aegypti mosquito bite, at the Obras Sociais Irma Dulce hospital in Salvador, Brazil on January 27, 2016. AFP/Christophe Simon

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Mateus Marcelina da Silva had big dreams for his son, but they were shattered when he was born with brain damage, like thousands of babies in Brazil affected by a birth defect blamed on the Zika virus.
Little Pietro looks almost like any other baby, but his head is unusually small and rigid.
Soon after he was born, he was diagnosed with microcephaly, a birth defect that has surged in Brazil and which health officials say appears to be caused by pregnant mothers catching Zika, an otherwise mild tropical fever.
Doctors think Pietro turned out this way because Mateus's wife, Kleisse, was bitten while she was pregnant by a mosquito carrying Zika.
 Health officials say a baby born in a Hawaii hospital is the first in the U.S. with a birth defect linked to the Zika virus, a tropical illness currently found in Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The virus originated in Africa and has spread rapidly through Latin America since it was first detected in the region last year.
Puerto Rico's cases of Zika, a virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which also transmits dengue and chikungunya, were concentrated in the island's southeast. AFP/Luis Robayo
"When he was born, it was like a bombshell. I had so many dreams for him. I wanted him to do sports, to play, to be healthy and strong," Mateus told AFP, holding Pietro as he and his wife awaited their turn at a special clinic set up for babies with microcephaly in Salvador, the capital of the hard-hit state of Bahia. 
 Kleisse bathes her son Pietro, who is suffering from microcephalia caught through an Aedes Aegypti mosquito bite, in Salvador, Brazil on January 28 , 2016. AFP/Christophe Simon
Kleisse was five months pregnant when she came down with Zika, which causes mild flu-like symptoms and a rash.
"I went to the doctor and he told me there was no risk for my baby. But when he was born, on November 22, they told us he had microcephaly, and that's when we found out he would never be a normal little boy," said Kleisse, 24.
As she speaks, Pietro squirms in her husband's arms. His body is stiffer and his head less soft than an infant with normal brain development -- typical of babies with microcephaly.
Pietro is the couple's first child together, and Kleisse said she couldn't stop crying after his birth.
"I've calmed down now, but I'm still afraid for my son's future," she said. "Will he be able to walk or talk?"
 Ana Paula Santos, 34, holds her 45-day-old daughter Flavia Alessandra, suffering from microcephalia supposedly caught through an Aedes aegypti mosquito bite, at the Obras Sociais Irma Dulce hospital in Salvador, Brazil on January 27, 2016. AFP/Christophe Simon
 
Ana Paula Santos, 34, has a similar story.
"I caught Zika while I was pregnant. They told me nothing would happen, but in my eighth month they detected microcephaly. I haven't been able to sleep since," she said, holding six-week-old Flavia in her arms.
"I was devastated to find out I would have a baby like this. I didn't expect it."
Crowded clinic
The waiting room is crowded, as it has been every Wednesday since the neuropediatrics department at Sister Dulce, a Catholic hospital in Salvador, set up this weekly clinic exclusively for microcephaly cases.
The first week, they got six cases. Two weeks later, there were 19. Now parents have to go on a waiting list just to get an appointment.
"We're on high alert, chasing solutions. We've gotten through the fear stage. Now we've kicked into action," said Janeusa Primo, head of neuropediatrics.
It is important to treat babies who have the condition by stimulating the undamaged areas of the brain as early as possible, she said.
 The rare birth defect that's triggering panic over the Zika virus, explained
Brazil first sounded the alarm in October, when a rash of microcephaly cases emerged in the northeast, several months into the Zika outbreak.
Since then, there have been 270 confirmed cases of microcephaly and 3,448 suspected cases, up from 147 last year.
 The Zika virus, which has been linked to brain damage in thousands of babies in Brazil, has been predicted by the World Health Organization to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile. There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika and an estimated 80 percent of people with the virus no symptoms, making it difficult for pregnant women to know whether they have been infected.
Mateus and Kleisse are still trying to adapt to their new reality. But one thing they are sure of is that they won't love their son any less, they say.
"The last time we were here and there was a woman waiting for the doctor and her baby was all covered, almost hidden. I asked her why her child was like that. And she told me she was ashamed of her baby," said Mateus.
"But you have to love your child. He didn't ask to be born this way. If it was up to him, he wouldn't be born with this disease. You just have to love him."
At that moment, Pietro turned his head toward his father.
"He understood," said Kleisse with a smile.

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