Something strange was happening last August in the maternity wards of Recife, a seaside city perched on Brazil’s easternmost tip, where the country juts into the Atlantic.
“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. “The doctors were saying, ‘Well, I saw four today,’ and, ‘Oh that’s strange, because I saw two.’”
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.
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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 Organization to declare a public health emergency. They have prompted warnings to pregnant women to avoid countries where the virus is circulating, even to refrain from unprotected sex with men who have visited those countries, following a report of sexual transmission of the virus in Dallas last week.
They have led health ministers of five countries to say something so unthinkable that none had ever uttered it before: Women, please delay having children.
The virus now threatens the economies of fragile nations and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It has opened a new front in the debate in heavily Roman Catholic countries about a woman’s right to birth control and abortion.
And the children stricken with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, have doctors everywhere asking: What is this virus? How could it have been around for almost 70 years without us realizing its power? What do we tell our patients about a bug that can hide in a mosquito’s proboscis and a man’s semen, even in human saliva or urine? What do we tell young women who ask if their unborn babies are safe?