Zika’s Echo Has Faded Only From the News

The virus’s effects resound in the everyday lives of mothers like Maria and her son, Bryan.

When was the last time you thought about the Zika virus? Not long ago, Zika filled the news. Images of babies born with microcephaly (an abnormally small head) flashed on our TV screens. Pregnant women were warned not to travel to Zika-affected regions. Low-level panic simmered as the virus arrived in the United States.

And then, it disappeared.

Not the virus. It was still there, touching thousands of families around the world. But here, in the United States, the news cycle rolled on.

We may not be able to remember the last time we thought about Zika. But Maria can.

She thought about it last week when she took little Bryan on the two-hour bus ride to the doctor’s office in Guatemala City.

She thought about it yesterday when she did therapy with him on their home’s rough floor.

She thought about it this morning when she cradled her baby boy, wondering what his future would hold.

Unlike us, Maria can’t forget Zika.

Maria was 19 years old and pregnant with her second child. Her husband drove a truck and was gone for months at a time. Her family lived far away. The only person Maria had to talk to was her daughter, 3-year-old Lucky.

So when Maria heard about the Survival program at La Semilla Church, she was eager to join.

“I was four months pregnant when I started going to the project,” says Maria. “I loved going to the group meetings and learning about keeping a clean home. My favorite story that I learned was about an important mother in the Bible, Mary. She became like a role model to me.”

Maria never missed a group activity, and she always eagerly welcomed visits by Vilma and Noemi, two of the Survival staff members. But when Maria was six months pregnant, she began to feel ill. Her body ached, and she ran a fever. Doctors dismissed her complaints, giving her medication for a urinary tract infection.

Slowly, Maria began to feel better. But she had no idea that the symptoms she had experienced were those of the Zika virus. She had only vague knowledge of the virus that had consumed the news. And even if she had known about the risks to herself, a pregnant woman, she couldn’t have afforded the mosquito repellant and nets to protect herself. She could buy 5 kilos of rice for the cost of one bottle of repellant!

So for Maria, there were no precautions. Even when an ultrasound revealed that her baby’s head measured smaller than normal, Maria didn’t think about Zika.

“I thought it was just because I hadn’t been eating enough in my pregnancy,” says Maria.

The night Maria went into labor marked the beginning of a difficult journey with her baby boy. At 9 p.m., she began having contractions. She walked to the clinic where nurses told her to go home; she wasn’t “ready” yet.

Terrified and alone, Maria walked back home to wait. Her husband saw the fear in his wife’s eyes, and he called Vilma and Noemi. The two women arrived at Maria’s house and immediately called for an ambulance.

But four hours later, no ambulance had arrived.

“We were worried because we could see that Maria was going to have her baby soon,” says Noemi. “We tried to get a car, but it was raining too much to use the roads and her contractions were too strong to move her from her bed. So Vilma and I decided that we would help Maria bring her baby into the world.”

Little Bryan was born at 2 a.m., welcomed by the smiles of his parents and the Survival workers. But when Vilma came to visit Bryan a few weeks later, she noticed something alarming.

Baby Bryan and his mom receive physical and spiritual support through Compassion's Survival program.

“I held Bryan in my arms and noticed that he did not respond to my hand gestures,” says Vilma. “He could not focus his eyes.”

The Survival staff arranged for Maria to take Bryan to a specialist, assuring her that they would cover the boy’s medical bills.

After a series of tests, doctors diagnosed Bryan with microcephaly, resulting from Maria’s undiagnosed case of Zika. Bryan was also blind, and partially deaf.

Maria kisses her son, Bryan, who was born with microcephaly after Maria contracted Zika virus during pregnancy. Zika can cause babies to be born with smaller-than-average heads, which can lead to developmental delays, seizures and other complications.

“The doctors explained that my baby was different,” says Maria. “They told me he was going to have many more troubles in life and that he might never walk. I was sad because I never expected my baby to be born ill.”

While Maria immersed herself in understanding her child’s condition, Vilma and Noemi engaged themselves in finding resources to help support the family. They found an organization that would provide the physical therapy Bryan needed to learn to walk. Five to six times a month, for Bryan’s first six months of life, the staff at the Survival center accompanied Maria and Bryan on the long bus ride to the city for the baby’s treatments and physical and respiratory therapies.

In the six months since Bryan’s birth, Maria has never been alone. On the long bus rides, a friend has always sat beside her. When she feels overwhelmed with fear for her baby boy’s future, a friend has held her hand and whispered a prayer.

Bryan is not simply a reminder of Zika. He is a reminder to Maria of God’s love for her and her baby.

“Special babies have special purposes in life,” says Maria. “I just pray and promise to do my best so that one day Bryan is able to walk and be a happy child.”

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Zika’s Echo Has Faded Only From the News

The virus’s effects resound in the everyday lives of mothers like Maria and her son, Bryan.