Something strange was happening last August in the maternity wards of Recife, a seaside city perched on Brazil’s easternmost tip.”Doctors, pediatricians, neurologists, they started finding this thing we never had seen,” said Dr Celina M Turchi, an infectious diseases researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a prominent scientific institute in Brazil.
“Children with normal faces up to the eyebrows, and then you have no foreheads and very strange heads,” she recalled, referring to the condition known as microcephaly. Aside from their alarming appearance, many of the babies seemed healthy . “They cried,” Dr Turchi said. “They breast-fed well. They just didn’t seem to be ill.”Doctors were stumped.
They did not know it then, but they were seeing the first swell of a horrifying wave. A little-known pathogen the Zika virus, carried by mosquitoes had been circulating in Brazil for at least a year. It would later become the chief suspect in the hunt to work out what had happened to those newborns. Since then, those tiny babies have led the World Health Organisation to declare a public health emergency.
A year earlier, doctors say, the first patients had started trickling into public hospitals in Natal, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, about 200 miles up the coast from Recife. It was a few weeks after the 2014 World Cup, and Natal had been one of the host cities of the soccer championship. Almost all had the same symptoms: a flat pinkish rash, bloodshot eyes, fever, joint pain and headaches.
By last March, the spread of a “doenca misteriosa” the mystery disease had become impossible to ignore. It appeared in two more states nearby. Then it reached Salvador, a city of 2.5 million. Working in his modest lab, Dr Silvia Sardi, Dr Soares kept testing blood samples. Finally , in April, they were sure: It was Zika. “I actually felt a sense of relief,” Dr Soares said. “The literature said it was much less aggressive than viruses we already deal with in Brazil.”