Brazil's mothers left to raise microcephaly babies alone

From: Ever Heard Of Abortion? ([email protected])

Try closing your legs and using birth control.

Ianka Barbosa was 7 months pregnant when she found out her child
had microcephaly. Before the baby was even born, the father had

Barbosa, 18, blames the break-up on her baby's abnormally small
head and brain damage that doctors link to the Zika virus she
contracted during pregnancy.

"I think, for him, it was my fault the baby has microcephaly,"
said Barbosa, wearing a blue dress and cradling tiny two-week
old Sophia in a cramped bare brick house where she now lives
with her parents in Brazil's northeast.

"When I most needed his help, he left me."

The house, which overlooks a polluted stream on the edge of a
poor neighborhood, is now home to a family of nine. Only
Barbosa's father has a job doing occasional building work.

Her ex-partner, Thersio, says he does not see Sophia, but avoids
discussing microcephaly and blames Barbosa's parents for the
break-up. "I gave her the choice, are you your parents' woman or
mine ... And she chose her parents."

Single parents are common in Brazil where some studies show as
many as 1 in 3 children from poor families grow up without their
biological father, but doctors on the frontline of the Zika
outbreak say they are concerned about how many mothers of babies
with microcephaly are being abandoned.

With the health service already under strain, abortion
prohibited, and the virus hitting the poorest hardest, an absent
father is yet another burden on mothers already struggling to
cope with raising a child that might never walk or talk.

At a specialized microcephaly clinic in Campina Grande,
psychologist Jacqueline Loureiro works with mothers to help them
cope with stress and trauma. Of the 41 women she counsels, she
says only 10 receive adequate financial or emotional support
from their partners.

"At first many of the women say they have a partner, but as you
get to know them better you realize the father is never around
and the baby and mother have effectively been abandoned,"
Loureiro said.

Loureiro blames Brazil's macho culture, which she says is
particularly strong in the northeast.

Gender roles are strictly defined and women still tend to care
for the baby and look after the household. The added burden of
having a child with microcephaly strains this dynamic, says
Loureiro, and often the man ends up leaving or refusing to help.


Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether it actually
causes microcephaly in babies. Brazil said it has confirmed 745
cases of microcephaly since October, and considers most of them
related to Zika infections in the mothers. It is investigating
another 4,230 cases of suspected microcephaly.

Until the World Health Organization declared Zika a global
health emergency last month, there was little interest in
microcephaly and no data for its toll on parents. But studies
into children with other special needs shows it substantially
increases the chance of marital breakdown.

Jennifer Lewis, who runs the U.S. based Microcephaly Foundation
and has a 12-year-old daughter with the condition, is not
surprised fathers in northeast Brazil are abandoning partners
and children. Her charity has a network of around 5,000 families
and she says the majority are single mothers.

"I see single mothers all the time, where the fathers have left,
the fathers have got scared. I even see married couples where
the father has pretty much nothing to do with the child," she
said in a phone interview from Phoenix, Arizona.

Campina Grande's health secretary, Luzia Pinto, told Reuters the
city is planning to provide housing for mothers and children
with microcephaly through a government housing program in order
to help with the crisis. She also ensured a psychologist was
hired at the clinic to offer support.


Few Brazilian jobs give enough flexibility for parents to better
share the responsibility of looking after a child with special
needs. This is made even more difficult as parents must often
travel for hours to visit the few specialized clinics operating
in Brazil.

At the clinic in Campina Grande, 20-year-old Rogerio dos Santos
is one of only two fathers present. Standing in the whitewashed
corridor, he says he's shocked by the tales of fathers
abandoning their children but says it has been hard to get time
off at the gas station where he works.

For fathers like dos Santos, the support network in Brazil is
lacking. Whereas the clinic runs a support group for the
mothers, there is no specific help offered for fathers.

"There is a certain amount of fatalism about fathers leaving,
unfortunately," said Gary Barker, who promotes gender equality
though ProMundo, an organization he founded in Rio de Janeiro 19
years ago and which now works in four countries.

For Barker, the health sector needs to offer support
specifically for men.

"There needs to be an understanding that a baby being born with
microcephaly is an event that is going to increase the chance
the father's not going to stick around and he's going to need
some extra hand holding," he said.

In the small town of Algodao de Jandaira, an hour from Campina
Grande, Josemary da Silva pours a cold bath to relieve her son
Gilberto from the relentless heat. The five-month-old baby with
microcephaly stops crying briefly as he is washed in a pale blue
plastic tub.

The father, after whom Gilberto is named, first saw his son one
month after he was born and has rarely visited since. Two months
ago he stopped contributing the $30 a month he had paid to help
da Silva care for the child.

"He says he loves him. But what kind of love is this," she says
as Gilberto starts to cry again.

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