Shortly after the 2014 World Cup, doctors start to notice patients trickling into public hospitals in Natal, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, about 200 miles up the coast from Recife. Natal had been one of the host cities of the soccer championship, which draws fans from all over the world. A second theory, proposed by French scientists, who had investigated the outbreak in Polynesia, was that it arrived a few weeks later, during the Va’a World Sprint, a canoe race in Rio that attracted teams from several Polynesian islands. Almost all victims had the same symptoms: a flat pinkish rash, bloodshot eyes, fever, joint pain and headaches. None were desperately ill, but the similarities were striking. Local epidemiologist:
That scared some patients and doctors, and my team. We knew nothing other than that it might be some kind of light dengue.
In January, 100 infected people show up at the state’s hospitals in one day. Infectious disease specialist:
We alerted the federal authorities that we were dealing with something urgent and new. But their reaction was sluggish.
By March 2015 the virus appears in two more Brazilian states, then reaches Salvador, a city of 2.5 million. Doctors speculate that the symptoms are the result of an allergy; that it was roseola, a childhood illness; that it was a new variant of Fifth Disease, a facial rash that gives children a “slapped-cheek” look. Dr Soares, a biologist:
People were claiming it was polluted water. I began thinking it was something transmitted by mosquitoes.
Working in his modest lab with a colleague, Dr. Soares tests thousands blood samples. Other doctors are doing the same. Over 6,800 samples are tested from victims ranging from 4 months to 98 years old. Parvovirus, dengue, chikungunya and other suspects are all ruled out, leaving Zika as the cause in April. Dr Soares:
I actually felt a sense of relief. The literature said it was much less aggressive than viruses we already deal with in Brazil.
The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation confirms Dr Soare’s research. Officials downplay the disease as having moderate effects, compared to Dengue fever, which kills hundreds people each year. Health Minister:
Zika virus doesn’t worry us. It’s a benign disease.
Brazilian scientists says they have detected the presence of the Zika virus in samples of human saliva and urine, a first for Brazil. The samples came from two patients with Zika-like symptoms; one was found to have the virus in urine, the other had Zika in the saliva sample. It remains unclear whether the tiny sample size was enough to produce solid conclusions. Researchers warn that the virus might have the potential to spread through kissing or urine, but are quick to point out that this still remains to be proved. A potential upside to Friday’s revelation could involve developing urine tests as a diagnostic tool. Researcher:
It is something we have to further investigate. We are not yet sure if Zika can be transmitted to others [through saliva or urine].