Andreina is one of the thirty women that take part in the psychosocial support activities for Zika organized by the Colombian Red Cross in the Bello Horizonte Community, in the outskirts of Valledupar. As many of them are, when she arrives at the community centre where the activity is taking place, she is carrying her daughter into her arms.

Talking about her daughter, Andreina describes the beginning of her pregnancy: “I got pregnant with Sofia in 2015 and it was a normal pregnancy. When I was about three weeks pregnant, I got a really strong headache and something that looked like an allergy, and I was hospitalized. The doctor told me it was just a rash, most probably caused by the drugs I took for the headache. He told me everything was fine – the ultrasounds, the check-ups, everything was fine”.

Sofia, who turned two in June 2018, looks around with curiosity but doesn’t speak yet. As she is not walking yet either, an adult usually carries her, or she lays on the floor. When she was born, doctors detected an anomaly in her head and, after many exams, they told the family that the girl had microcephaly, probably caused by the Zika virus.

An impact at the social, financial and psychological level

The Zika virus global public health emergency was declared in February 2017. By then, the outbreak’s consequences were already becoming apparent in the Americas. Microcephaly is probably the most visible and most striking of them, as it causes life-long complications in the new-born’s health and has repercussions on the family, affecting their social relationships, health and financial situation.

Andreina reveals that the psychological impact is particularly severe for mothers: “At the beginning, when Sofia was just born, I kept her a secret: it was something painful. But the community helped me. They told me that she was my daughter and that they would love her all the same, that she was a normal girl and that I must be strong because if I was feeling down, she would also feel down. They told me they would help me, they would be on my side and be there for whatever I needed”.

Andrina can consider herself lucky, as in most cases the families of children that suffer from microcephaly are excluded from the society and stigmatized– this is also the case for people that get Zika or other diseases. However, Sofia’s condition is affecting the care and attention that her brothers and sister receive from their mother, as well as having an impact on the family’s financial situation.

I can’t work because I have to take care of her. She always needs a lot of attention, she can’t be left alone for too long and I must take her to therapy every day. At therapy, they tell me to stimulate her at home, to give her massages, because she is strong. I’m stimulating her, so that she can progress. It’s also very important to pay attention to her diet, because she can’t eat solid food, and everything needs to be liquified, or pureed or made into soup”.

Care, support and social transformation

The Red Cross has been implementing psychosocial support activities in the community of Bello Horizonte for over a year – activities that are targeting pregnant women and families of children with microcephaly in particular. Volunteers and community members have been supporting Andreina, who, thanks to her participation in the group and the home visits from the Red Cross, has been receiving support to take care of her daughter and herself in the best possible way.

Thanks to the Red Cross’ work, Andreina is now informed about Zika and she has become an important actor in sharing key messages at the community level: “We now keep an eye out for the containers where water can accumulate so that there are no eggs. We keep everything clean we make sure we will never get sick again – us and other family members.

When I talk to other pregnant women, I tell them to keep their house tidy, to stay vigilant, especially during winter, to clean their yard, their indoors, and to use mosquito nets. To always attend their check-ups, to ask a lot of questions of their doctor. If there is an outbreak, to ask about it. I tell them not to be blind – because I was blind. That they mustn’t be as naïve as I was. Before having Sofia, I knew nothing about Zika, I didn’t know what it was”, she explains.

Seated in her backyard at the end of the day, repeating the stimulation exercises that she learned with the Red Cross with Sofia, Andreina talks about her love and devotion for her child, despite all challenges. She ponders: “When I learned that Sofia had microcephaly I thought: “Why didn’t they warn me, why didn’t they tell me she would be born like this?” They were mistaken, but it was a beautiful mistake”.