Train Wreck

Honestly, I was trying to envision the absolute state of wreckage (pardon the redundancy) my country now finds itself in as something apart from my daily exile experience… when the whole story turned more personal than I’d have expected: A nice woman I know has found herself pregnant during the panic wave surrounding pregnancies in the mosquito-stricken Brazil of these last few weeks.

We have been discussing this, and Alan advised me, if I ever wanted to write about it, I should do it from a scientific, non-biased point of view, an impossible task.

I’m not a scientist, in the first place. Worse, I’m a faithful practitioner and disseminator of hearsay, which is made even more inconvenient by my habit of exaggeration. At least in Brazil, what I write belongs to the literary genre widely known as “chronicle,” also characterized by a very personal point of view.

Not that the media have been acting any differently. Whenever you try to dig deeper into anything that has been published, or is still being highlighted in the news, that’s exactly what you find: inexactness.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve lived all my life in a country that Alan could not help but dub “the land of Absalokhes” (sorry, I have no idea of how to spell this name), where, according to an old, politically incorrect Yiddish song, lives a black person mit [with] a white tokhes [buttocks]. Between you and me, there’s nothing offensive about it. It’s merely the description of a country where practically all aspects of daily life are fraught with impossibility and lies.

All right. This could very well be Brazil today.

Even more surprisingly, all of a sudden, the highly marginalized Brazilian scientific community (some would say, an oxymoron) is now being accepted as accurate and legitimate by the First World. I mean, by U.S. officials, who, on the verge of I don’t know what, immediately offered yet another miraculous intervention, aiming at saving the world from itself. Or, at least, from its widespread dreadful disease.

Don’t get me wrong. In the field of infectious diseases, especially the ones transmitted by mosquitoes, Brazilian scientists do have verifiable historical expertise. Like, for example, Carlos Chagas, who not only discovered a dangerous illness back in 1909, but also described it and named it — Chagas disease — although he could not find a cure.

Everything I can personally tell you about the Aedes Aegypti mosquito is that I encountered it once, more than 10 years ago. Yes, I had dengue fever, at the time the only disease that was described as transmitted by this particular mosquito. And, man, it felt really bad.

The mosquito was said to be a summer plague, thriving in the still waters that accumulated due to heavy summer rains and in those little plates under plant vases. We were all instructed to keep those plates drained, and at the height of the epidemic, government health agents were allowed to enter people’s homes in order to empty them and spray insecticide. Cases of dengue were not heard of during Rio’s “winter,” which, as everybody knows, lasts only a couple of days.

Now, seriously, over the 30+ years I lived in Rio, there was no talk of dengue in the winter months — June, July, August. Which brings us to the suspicious haste in which Dilma’s government indulged itself in issuing a world alert, resulting in thousands, millions of travel plan cancellations affecting the upcoming Olympic Games. Why?

Again, I do not mean to interfere with the most desired safety of pregnant women, God forbid. But I can’t stop myself from asking why now, why like this, considering the Zika virus has been afflicting Brazil since the 2014 World Cup, at least. Moreover, as the panic spreads, it sounds as if the whole country is doomed, turned into living hell, sunken under a black swarm of infectious mosquitoes. When in fact the focus is quite limited to a state in the northeast, namely one of the poorest regions in the country, where, speaking of which, most of the suspicious cases of microcephaly were, in fact, discarded as being caused by the Zika virus.

Could this be to any degree associated with all the other problems that have been afflicting Dilma’s government? Some kind of devilish distraction, maybe?

Okay. I apologize. Better stick to the facts.

One of the most dreadful results of this wave of bad media is that healthy, most likely uninfected pregnant women are seriously considering abortion, which, in Brazil, is an illegal procedure, with dire consequences if money is too limited to pay for an expensive clinic, albeit clandestine. Not to mention the hundreds of healthy fetuses that could be deprived of their right to life. As we all know, panic gets easily out of control.

And why would I waste my time writing about it? The cat is out of the bag, my friends, and there’s no putting it back. But perhaps I could, at least, save a few “little angels,” as we call them back home — souls ruthlessly dispatched to the other world with no mercy or chance. What a horror. What a shame.

Only this week, I read in the news, the cases of microcephaly, a rare congenital condition now associated with babies infected by Zika, have risen 49%. Odds are that it is not the disease that has risen, but, in fact, the communication of its occurrence to the authorities. Before its association with Zika, mothers in general did not see themselves as infected, just unlucky. Moreover, the cases of babies born with microcephaly need to be associated with an infection that had taken place in the mother’s womb several months before, 6 months prior to birth. Not to mention that in many cases Zika can pass unnoticed, because of the mildness of its symptoms. Yes, it is confusing. Even more so for ignorant women in poor Northeastern Brazil.

So let’s us now resort to a little science; if nothing else, at least to save our speculative asses. One of my Brazilian friends, an experienced doctor who now lives in Canada, describes as a must what she calls “the Pasteur cycle”: To know for sure if two maladies are related — for instance, the Zika infection and microcephaly — the following sequence of events is required:

  1. To collect the supposed causal agent, in this case the Zika virus, from a child with microcephaly.
  2. To cultivate the virus in a lab.
  3. To inoculate the cultivated virus in an animal, in this case an animal embryo, thus provoking the disease, that is, microcephaly.

Was any of that done? I doubt it. The doctor proceeded to tell me the story of how, a few years ago, the causal agent of a serious condition, known as goiter, was associated with Chagas disease. The Trypanosoma was found in all the people with goiter, more or less as is happening now with Zika; but it was merely a coincidence… The same region that was infected by Chagas disease was also afflicted by a serious lack of iodine, the actual cause of goiter…

Not to mention, there is an absence of microcephaly cases in other regions in the world highly affected by Zika, such as the Polynesian islands. Shallow research can inform us that, although it is only now being given a lot of attention, the Zika virus was actually discovered in Uganda in 1948, leading us to the conclusion that there must be a third agent in this case, yet unidentified. Or, the poor Ugandans would now have countless microcephalic adults among its population. Unless, of course, they are all dead, forever unreported.

Zika is a serious disease, demanding all possible efforts in the direction of finding a vaccine as soon as possible. Nevertheless, in the current state of decay and debacle Brazil finds itself, this alert and latest news involving Zika and microcephaly should be treated at least with some degree of incredulity. Until further investigation can be done. Before global panic reaches the highest level, which it already has. Case dismissed.

On a final note, in my beloved Minas Gerais the word “train” is used to describe everything, any fact, especially a previously undescribed thing or fact, as this Zika “train”. And what a serious train wreck this is, my goodness. The last drop to finally sink the forlorn land called Brazil.

About the Author
Noga Sklar was born in Tiberias, Israel, in 1952. She grew up in Belo Horizonte and lived for 30 years in Rio de Janeiro, a city she left behind to take refuge in a paradise among the mountains of Petropolis. Noga met her American husband Alan Sklar in 2004, through the American Jewish dating site JDate. This meeting gave new impetus to her life and literary career, inspiring her first novel, “No degrees of separation” (to be published in English in 2016. She now lives in Greenville, SC, US, where she moved with her husband in October 2014.
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