STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a news story that commands the attention of parent, and especially expectant parents - news of a mosquito-borne virus linked to brain defects in infants. It's called Zika. U.S. officials have warned pregnant women to avoid traveling to places where the virus is present, and that includes Brazil, the country we visit next. Brazilians are wrestling with the virus just as they'd rather focus on next month's Carnival or this summer's Olympics. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from the northern Brazilian city of Natal.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Arthur is continually fretful. His mother, Marilia Lima, says he's been hard to soothe ever since he was born two-and-a-half months ago with microcephaly.
MARILIA LIMA: (Through interpreter) We are living with this terrible thing. It's still something that doesn't feel real to me yet. But I'm at the point where I can't think. I just have to act.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's a civil servant who's a sociologist and a lawyer. Arthur is her second son, and she cradles his tiny body against her chest as we talk. He has a markedly small head, almost like it was placed in a vise at the top, which is typical of the condition. He also has problems with his eyes, his hip and the bones in his legs and arms.
LIMA: (Through interpreter) I've had to walk this road alone - chase down one doctor who refers me to another. The doctors don't understand much about situation either because it's all very new.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lima caught Zika in the early stages of her pregnancy, which her doctors now believe caused the microcephaly in Arthur. She says, ever since Arthur was born, she's been fighting to get him the help that he needs
LIMA: (Through interpreter) We have had no follow-up from the government and bad service at the hospitals. We know that there is a ticking clock with these babies. They need certain stimuli at certain points in their lives if they're going to survive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil is now funding research into a vaccine for Zika. It sent the army into certain cities to help eradicate the mosquito that carries the virus. But Lima says the more than 3,500 babies who were born with microcephaly here in Brazil have been forgotten.
LIMA: (Through interpreter) It is as if they see us as a lost cause. The government's attitude seems to be, they have been contaminated, so let's focus on the ones that haven't been yet. It's just devastating.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, when she falls asleep, she wonders if she will wake up to find Arthur dead. Most children born with this condition have limited life expectancies. As we're talking, she starts to cry.
LIMA: (Through interpreter) This has changed my life completely. I also now understand and have experienced firsthand the government's negligence. I wish I could help all those other mothers out there who have been abandoned.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Januario Cicco Maternity Hospital in Natal is where all of the cases of Zika-related microcephaly are being dealt with in Natal. Dr. Nivea Arraes is a neonatal pediatrician here, and she currently has 17 infants with microcephaly under her direct care. She says we are seeing a huge demand, but we have to deal with microcephalic children as well as all the other high-risk cases. The health services need to be reorganized to deal with it. She says they need more geneticists, physical therapists, specialized pediatricians. The list goes on.
NIVEA ARRAES: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The families come here very anxious for help and for answers," she says. "To have to tell these mothers that they have to do it all themselves because we don't have the capacity to help them is so sad. We have few answers for them," she says. We took these concerns to the state health secretary of Rio Grande do Norte, where Natal is. Dr. Ricardo Lagreca, the state health secretary, seemed surprised that the health system was overwhelmed in his state.
RICARDO LAGRECA: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tells me, if the mothers and their microcephalic infants go to their local government health clinic, they will get the help they need from the health network, he asserts. When pressed, he says this is all very new for us. And he says, so far, there have been no extra funds disbursed for dealing with the microcephalic infants. He says he hopes that that will change soon. Back at the apartment, mother Marilia Lima says she will continue to fight for her son Arthur.
LIMA: (Through interpreter) I never saw myself as strong, but I have no choice now. I will keep going.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's all I can do, she says - keep moving forward. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Natal.
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