AS THE opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics kicks off a month of sporting excitement, the organisers are desperately anxious that none of the visitors — let alone the athletes — should contract the Zika virus. Since last year, the virus, which can cause birth defects in babies if their mothers are infected while pregnant, has swept through the country, and has now reached other parts of Latin America and the United States.
In Rio, the risk has declined a little: during the winter season, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the virus, does not breed as successfully. With precautions such as insect repellent and regular cleaning of potential breeding sites, Olympic officials estimate that there will be only a few cases among tourists.
But, in the tropical northern cities close to the Equator, the winter is still warm enough for the mosquitoes to continue breeding, and the hospitals are full of babies with microcephaly — the abnormally small head resulting from incomplete brain development that the virus can cause in utero. In these cities, churches and their congregations are taking the lead in trying to prevent the virus from infecting any more women.
RECIFE, the fourth largest city in Brazil, has some of the country’s poorest communities, who live in run-down, cramped favelas, or shanty towns. Lack of education in these communities means that prevention messages are not always getting through. Insect repellent is often unaffordable for poor families, and it is often sold out anyway.
The government employs community-health agents to visit homes every two months and check that residents are not storing water inappropriately; water tanks should be covered, and even dog bowls containing water should not be left out. But, as government representatives, they are not necessarily trusted.
Daniel Oliveira, a street pastor from the Imperial Baptist Church, says: “These communities are disappointed by politicians. They come here promising something, giving them food, buying votes, but then they leave, and nothing happens. They don’t trust them.” In contrast, people from the church are welcomed, and are often asked for health information.
”I went into the community, and saw a mother with a microcephaly baby. She asked me: ‘When will my child’s head grow?’ It’s heartbreaking. One of our congregation took her to a doctor,” Mr Oliveira said. He regularly takes a band of volunteer street-cleaners around the Coque favela, a slum that stands under a huge concrete flyover.
He is also attempting to mobilise more street pastors by running a three-year training programme, after a successful open-air conference held under the flyover last autumn, which attracted 500 people.
A FEW miles away, the Revd Henrique Marins has organised a team of volunteers from the congregation of his Charismatic Episcopal Church of Brazil. Before setting out for the nearby favela Comunidade da Borborema, the volunteers hear an educational talk given by Olívia de Carvalho, from the Christian NGO World Vision Brazil, which is donating supplies to 48 churches in the state as part of its emergency response.
Mr de Carvalho explains how one mosquito can infect 450 people during a lifetime of just 30 days. The females deposit 90 eggs into water — which is why water supplies need to be covered — and mosquito eggs can survive without water for one year; hence there is such an emphasis on cleaning.
After the talk, the volunteers are split into two groups. The first, with masks, blue rubber gloves, and bin bags, go into the favela led by Mr Marins. The team knock on doors, distribute advice leaflets, and hand out tickets to pregnant women and children. The second group wait outside the favela armed with anti-Zika kits which include repellent, mosquito bed-nets, and rubber gloves for cleaning, which are given to those who present a ticket. “It would be chaos if we tried to hand out the supplies inside these narrow streets,” Mr de Carvalho explained. “Everyone would want them.”
During the two-hour trek around the narrow, winding lanes, the volunteers spot many sources of uncovered water: blocked gutters, used tyres, broken bottles, and open water-tanks. Almir Verissimo, an industrial engineering student, is satisfied with the morning’s work. “I wanted to come because I’m motivated by the results. The community close to our church will benefit. I even managed to drag my friend along to help.”
Indeed, Mr Marins is full of praise for the young people who have given up their Saturday morning. “They want to serve their neighbours as God taught us. But of course I’m proud of them,” he says. One third of his congregation live in the Comunidade da Borborema favela, including one of the volunteers, Maria Silva, aged 67. Despite the noise and the squalor, she loves her community: “I’ve lived here 47 years. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
FOR families already affected by the Zika virus, access to health care can be difficult; the health infrastructure is inadequate in many areas, and patients have to travel a long way to get to a clinic. Single parents with other children to look after find it particularly tough.
But the local church is helping where it can. Centro de Reabilitação e Valorização da Criança (CERVAC) is a charitable rehabilitation centre for children with disabilities in Recife. It was started 28 years ago in a church room donated by the local Roman Catholic priest, Fr Reginaldo Veloso, from the parish of Our Lady of Conception. The centre assists 300 children a year, but there are more than 70 on the waiting list. It is currently supporting 33 microcephaly babies and their families.
It was the idea of Alba Lopes, now 51, who helped to support a younger cousin with Down’s syndrome so competently that other parents of children with disabilities asked for her help. She asked a neighbour, Marcos Ferreira, now 54, to help her. After working together for five years, the pair fell in love and were married by Fr Veloso, who remains on the governing council of CERVAC.
The centre is partnered with Coordenadoria Ecumenica de Servico, a national group of Churches which includes the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, and the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic Churches.
It has recently taken on a new tranche of speech therapists, physiotherapists, and psychologists to help the children affected by microcephaly, funded in part by World Vision Brazil. The children have problems swallowing and, therefore, eating, which, in turn, can cause respiratory problems and, in worst cases, pneumonia.
Babies and toddlers with microcephaly are treated alongside those with Down’s syndrome and other chromosomal conditions, cerebral palsy, hearing problems, and, more recently, children with autism and behavioural difficulties.
A number of the young adults are part of a dance group who visit schools, spreading the word about the success of the centre. They also perform at ecumenical services in the area, as well as at universities and public events.
Gisele Carla, Ms Lopes’s cousin with Down’s syndrome, who inspired the centre, is now 32, and is its proud receptionist. Faith underpins the work of the project, and, in Miss Carla’s office, a statue of the patron saint Our Lady of Conception stands behind her.
IN THE sensory area for the babies, a speech therapist, Sheila Peixoto, is massaging the facial muscles of 19-month-old Kauai, who has microcephaly. His grandmother Maria da Conceição has high praise for CERVAC. “It’s excellent here; they really support us, both inside and outside the centre.”
Visiting today is the World Vision Brazil National Director, João Helder Diniz, who brings good news: all 33 of the microcephaly babies have been sponsored by one generous donor, which will ensure that they have ongoing support. He aims to find sponsorship for all of the other children at the centre.
Mr Diniz acknowledges the important part played by the Church: “When you go to a centre like this, you always find a small church there — Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist. We want to mobilise the different religions to support the well-being of these children. It’s important work.”
It is work that the founders would like to carry out for as long as they can. Mrs Lopes says that she and her husband have a shared philosophy of “living to serve”, and, when asked about retirement, Mr Ferreira simply smiles and says: “I will work until God allows.”