In December, when Brazil was only beginning to grasp the threat posed by the Zika virus, an intrepid reporter on an ICFJ health journalism program wrote about the severity of the problem. In her story for parenting journal Revista Crescer, Brazilian journalist Maria Clara Vieira interviewed experts at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which she visited as part of an ICFJ study tour, supported by Johnson & Johnson focusing on maternal and child health issues.
In the piece, she also offered short-term strategies to help Brazilian women avoid infection. On Feb. 1, less than two months later, the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne virus to be a global public health emergency.
Her story was just the beginning of Vieira’s effort to help thousands of families with children born with microcephaly (abnormal smallness of the head), a birth defect that experts have linked to the Zika virus. Vieira recently launched an online project called Cabeça e Coração (Head and Heart) to help connect families whose children were born with microcephaly.
Her profiles of these families are heart-rending testimonials. They illustrate the struggle to deal with the emotional and economic impact of the disease. Many affected families live in areas where health services, especially for the disabled, are limited. Vieira’s project aims to help families get assistance for their special-needs children.
Already, she's having impact. In an interview with ICFJ's Elisa Tinsley, Vieira explains how.
What is the main goal of the Cabeça e Coração project?
Vieira: The main goal is to create empathy (for the affected babies and their families) in this crisis. These babies are not numbers. They have faces, names, families and special needs. I am interviewing the mothers by telephone, since they are all around the country. They tell me about their pregnancy, their delivery, their experience with a Zika infection and their baby’s progress. The intention is to use the power of the Internet and social networks to find donors who can help these families get what they need.
How would you describe the majority of the families affected?
Vieira: They are socially vulnerable. Usually the parents are unemployed and live in poor areas. Diapers, baby formula, strollers and other baby products are expensive in Brazil. So they need help.
Describe Cabeça e Coração.
Vieira: Cabeça e Coração is a virtual platform that connects people who want to help with people who need help. Each post is a story of a baby. At the end of the post, donors can find a list of items the baby needs (diapers, strollers, etc.) and the address of the families.
What impact has the project had so far?
Vieira: The social network seems to be having a positive impact. Mothers tell me that they are receiving donations from around Brazil. They are really happy. Little things like a pack of diapers or cans of formula make a difference.
How are the Brazilian media covering the health crisis?
Vieira: I haven’t seen much about how the families are coping with babies affected by microcephaly. Since Brazil has a very poor population and precarious health assistance (especially in the Northeast, the most affected region), these babies need a lot of special care. Besides that, I haven’t seen in-depth stories that ask why the official numbers of cases are so far from reality.
You were among six winners of ICFJ’s Global Health Reporting Contest invited on a U.S. study tour in December. Did your visit help you cover the crisis?
Vieira: ICFJ's fellowship helped a lot. When I was at the Carter Center Museum in Atlanta, I saw an excerpt of a famous speech by Jimmy Carter posted on the wall. It said: "We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes – and we must." When I read this, I was already thinking about starting the Cabeça e Coração project. After that, I had to make it happen. I believe that by telling people’s stories, we can do great things and create change.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Day Donaldson.