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Tackling the Zika Virus: CANADEM’s Communication Specialist in Brazil

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne infection that was first identified in Uganda in 1947. Since then, outbreaks of the virus have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific causing human infections from 1960s to 1980s.

In Brazil, after 40 years of battling endemic yellow fever and dengue, it was unlikely to presume that a mosquito born disease, such as Chikungunya and Zika, would lead to a worldwide public health emergency with millions being infected with the virus and thousands of children developing Zika congenital infection.

In Brazil, the human impacts of the epidemic are devastating.

Tatiana Almeida, a CANADEM associate, was deployed to Brazil with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as a Communications Specialist from May to October 2016 with the support from the Government of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID). Her main mission was to design and implement a communication strategy that would contribute to promoting human rights in the context of the ongoing epidemic.

Social inequalities at the heart of the Zika outbreak

Facing a Zika health emergency, nations responded with vector control and epidemiological surveillance. However social, economic, political and environmental determinants behind Zika indicates that decades of prevalent social inequalities, such as limited access to running water and sanitation, exposed Brazil’s most vulnerable populations to the virus.

The most affected populations included women, youth and African descendants. I’ve been in communities where nearly 90% of its inhabitants had Zika, dengue or chikungunya during the outbreak. Taking advantage of my experience as a journalist, I focused my efforts in providing a human rights-based picture of the reality of Zika in Brazil with the help of those who so kindly shared their personal story with me.

Those infected by the virus include a high percentage of adolescent mothers or unplanned pregnancies, most with little access to information on sexual and reproductive health rights, or Zika prevention (including zika virus sexual transmission). Those infected also included individuals experiencing an increasing number of microcephaly and other nervous system related syndromes.

"I had  Zika. I had everything poor people are entitled to." - Eunice, a member of the Calafate Women's Collective, a UNFPA partner organization that aims to end gender-based violence and promote women's health and rights. 

Unplanned pregnancies: UNFPA estimates that in Brazil alone, between 3.5 and 4.2 million women of reproductive age are estimated to have unmet needs in terms of access to family planning and contraception. The access of women and couples to contraceptives remains a challenge, and the available data suggests that the access to reproductive health information and resources is unequal among women.

Adolescent mothers: In Brazil, 20% of mothers are less than 20 years old, and 40% of them leave school to concentrate on motherhood.

“Near-miss”: Women who almost lose their lives during or after a delivery

Progress in reducing maternal deaths have been slow in most countries. UNFPA is the lead UN agency working to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person´s potential is fulfilled.

"I almost died during labour" - Lisandra, 20 years old

Women empowerment: In March 2016 the UNFPA Executive Director, Babatunde Osotimehin, urged governments to provide information and guarantee access to family planning, as the only way women can make well informed decisions about their reproductive health and rights, and to protect themselves from the Zika virus disease since the confirmation of the risk of sexual transmission.

UNFPA is working with Brazilian state and municipal officials to respond to these increased demands. UNFPA and its partners – including CANADEM, DFID, the Government of Japan and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation – are working to improve access to reproductive health information and services, and to increase access to contraceptives. This partnership prioritizes the most vulnerable women, including teenagers and women of African descent, and those living in areas with the highest incidence of microcephaly.

"Women have the right to choose whether they wish to bear children or not”, defends 18-year-old Silas

"Get together for More Rights, Less Zika"

Created by Dream Team do Passinho, Funk music stars from Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities, the song “More Rights, Less Zika” was by far my biggest achievement as part of youth engagement and women empowerment communication strategies. The band partnered with UNFPA to produce the song, which has been a hit among concert-goers and on Brazilian radio.

The song urges listeners to use condoms to prevent the sexual transmission of the disease, and draws attention to the fact that Zika is disproportionately affecting poor, marginalized communities. As the song, says, “the fault isn’t the mosquito’s only”.


The group’s members – Lellêzinha, Rafael Mike, Hiltinho, Diogo Breguette and Pablo – all grew up in Rio de Janeiro’s marginalized communities. “We identified with the cause because people who suffer with Zika virus live in favelas and are young people of African descent just like us,” said 18-year-old Lellêzinha.

The song also rebukes the prejudice that often affects mothers whose infants are born with Zika-related health problems, calling instead for compassion and empowerment for “the girl who became pregnant in the slum where there’s no proper sanitation / and the baby with microcephaly whose dad faded away.”

I am most thankful to CANADEM and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) for supporting and funding my mission in Brazil, I pledge the international community to continue donating and improving life conditions of vulnerable communities in Brazil. I can assure you that they are taking the lead in promoting the changes they wish to see in their country and your support will indeed make a difference!"

Read more of Tatiana Almeida’s stories from the field by visiting the UNFPA Brazil website (in Portuguese).

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