Brazil president tries to ease wary nation amid Zika spread

AP News
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Posted: Feb 02, 2016 5:34 PM
Brazil president tries to ease wary nation amid Zika spread

SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil's president promised a wary nation on Tuesday that no resources would be spared in the fight against Zika, addressing Congress a day after the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne virus an international emergency.

A spike in the number of Brazilian babies born with brain defects and abnormally small heads has been linked to their mother's contracting the virus during pregnancy. Several thousand cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil since October, although researchers have so far not proven a definitive link to the virus. No vaccine or cure exists for Zika.

"We should all be worried about microcephaly," Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff said, calling on Congress to partner with her in the fight against the virus.

Before the Zika virus started grabbing international attention, Brazil was already struggling to prepare for this summer's Olympic Games, set to begin in August in Rio de Janeiro. Constructions projects have started and stopped, and questions have been raised about the safety of athletes after an Associated Press investigation found alarmingly high levels of bacteria and viruses in water bodies where competitions will take place.

Worry over the Zika virus was the main topic Tuesday during an Olympic committee news conference. Instead of updates on venue construction or ticket sales, health officials attempted to ease fears that the virus would wreak havoc.

"Athletes are not at risk," declared Dr. Joao Grangeiro, the organizers' medical director, promising the mosquito count will fall in August during Brazil's winter. "We will have Summer Games, but for us it's winter time."

Daniel Soranz, Rio's health secretary, told reporters the mosquitoes around the Olympic Park were not primarily the type that transmits Zika.

Still, Rio organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada was vague when asked how organizers were going to fund mosquito eradication efforts as they slash in other areas.

"In this case the most important thing to do is obviously to care for those who have been infected and to prevent new infections, and not to worry if we have budget or not," Andrada said.

The virus may yet become the biggest challenge for organizers amid an already long list of woes. Some $500 million has been cut to keep the $2 billion operating budget in balance as Brazil struggles with its deepest recession since the 1930s. The local currency has lost about 30 percent of its value against the dollar, inflation is above 10 percent and announcements of layoffs are a daily occurrence.

Amid such a backdrop, Rousseff has single-digit approval ratings and is facing impeachment proceedings related to the alleged use by her government of pension funds to shore up the budget. She denies any wrongdoing.

Regardless of what Rousseff proposes on Zika or the economy, Congress may not go along. The Workers' Party has only 59 of the 513 members of the lower house and traditionally has passed legislation by forming coalitions with other large blocs, which may find little incentive to work with the unpopular president.

In her Tuesday address, Rousseff promised to develop a care program for children born with microcephaly. She also promised to cut spending and revisit the South American nation's vast array of subsidy programs, though she was light on details.

While economists say such reforms are desperately needed, they draw the ire of her Workers Party base and are a hard sell to the nation amid high inflation and job losses. When she spoke about a proposed tax on banking transactions, one of the government's main plans to generate revenue, many in the chamber booed, forcing her to momentarily stop speaking.

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Prengaman reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Associated Press reporters Steve Wade and SNTV producer Filipe de Almeida in Rio contributed to this report.