MANAUS — New figures published by the Brazilian Health Ministry show that eight out of ten babies born with microcephaly and other cortical alterations linked to the Zika virus are born from mothers who are black or mixed-race.

In Brazil's northeastern region, where the number of reported cases is the highest in the country, the proportion even reaches 93.9% in the state of Ceará, even though black and mixed-race women there represent 66.4% of the female population. Nationally, they make up for 49.9% of women.

Jurema Werneck, a black doctor and activist for NGO Criola, which fights for the rights of black women in Brazil, says that the figures "unfortunately aren't unexpected."

Werneck adds that "lurking behind the proliferation of Zika-infected mosquitos is an environmental tragedy. The lack of sanitation, of proper garbage pick-up, of access to a clean water network affect black communities."

The doctor says that racial inequality between black and white women is also reflected in their access to abortion which, despite being illegal (except if the woman's life is in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of a rape), is more easily accessible and safer for the predominantly white middle class. "The government says: You can't abort. But it also says that your children are your responsibility."

Information and race

Werneck also criticizes failures in the data's collection and disclosure. "When the government doesn't say that black women are suffering more, it refuses to take responsibility and to take measures directed specifically at this group. It makes some generic statement and can continue to publicly say that we need to eradicate this mosquito while continuing to ignore these women. This is pure racism."

Aedes aegypti mosquito, the species behind the Zika outbreak — Photo: Stephen Ausmus/Action Press/ZUMA

Anthropologist Debora Diniz, whose research at the University of Brasilia focuses on the Zika virus, states that the figures indicate that even among poor women in the northeastern region, it is black women who proportionately bear the brunt of the epidemic.

Diniz, who wrote a book on the virus (Zika: do Sertão Nordestino à Ameaça Global — "Zika, from the Northeastern Hinterland to Global Threat") says that the high number of malformations linked to Zika among black families will only contribute in widening the inequality gap between communities.

Diniz says families struck by diseases linked to the virus require extra support from the state. "You're forcing women to take responsibility for the whole care." As a result, many mothers have had to abandon their jobs to take care of their children full time which, according to Diniz, makes these families' situations even more precarious.