Brazil unleashes all-out war against Zika virus

Carnival is over and now, with full force, the problem of the spreading Zika virus is dominating public life in Brazil.

It remains unproven that the infection, spread by mosquito bites, is the cause of microcephaly - the deformation of embryos' skulls during pregnancy - but a link is strongly suspected, triggering panic in areas hardest hit by the virus.

Normally, the virus is relatively harmless, causing minor symptoms including fever, skin rashes and headaches. But by official accounts, several people have already died from the Zika infection, and the risk to expecting mothers could be grave.

Brazil's response to control an epidemic that has already spread to more than 30 countries: some 220,000 soldiers were despatched Saturday to battle the tiny Aedes aegypt mosquito, under a five-point "battle plan."

POINT 1 - Hard research data: There is enormous pressure on health authorities, while doctors are reporting an increasing rates of abortion amid growing fears about the disease. The Catholic Church has entered the fray, warning against the rush to kill unborn babies and against the idea of a "Lex Zika" that would make getting an abortion easier. Meanwhile, the United States and Brazil are jointly at work on a vaccine. But it could still take years before such prevention would be ready for widespread application.

POINT 2 - Public health prevention measures: Saturday's day of action was meant to send signals both at home and abroad. Soldiers and thousands of health authority workers distributed leaflets and went house-to-house - visiting up to 3 million homes - to educate people to eliminate even the smallest puddles or standing water around their homes where mosquitoes can lay eggs. The favelas, in particular, which lack modern sewage systems, breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. The public information campaign, heading into the Summer Olympics in August in Rio de Janeiro, is meant to show that Brazil is fighting to win the "war" on the virus. In Rio alone, 71,000 soldiers were deployed for the campaign.

POINT 3 - The army versus the mosquito: In a second phase, some 50,000 soldiers are to be deployed in the coming weeks to wipe out mosquito breeding grounds in the most hard-hit areas. Children in thousands of schools are to be informed about the dangers of the mosquito, which is active across 81 per cent of Brazil's territory.

POINT 4 - A public-private spraying campaign: Since the epidemic's outbreak, the government has distributed 100 tonnes of anti-larvae chemicals to the federal states to be sprayed on the water in a bid to slow down the spread of the mosquito population. In addition, 550 tonnes of insecticides are foreseen to make housing areas free of mosquitoes. Many private people are already involved in their personal battle, with purchases of mosquito repellants surging 50 per cent. Companies are producing around-the-clock while sprays are even being imported from Argentina. According to the newspaper Globo, 14.7 million mosquito repellants were sold last year, with 2016 like to set yet a new record.

POINT 5 - New methods: One proposal comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where the head of research, Marc Vreysen, is speaking of interrupting the reproduction cycle of mosquitoes by sterilizing males with doses of radiation. The males would then be let free to mate with females, whose eggs would produce no offspring. Irradiation, which is not new to insect control, has already been employed in Guatemala to protect banana plantations from fruit flies. Similar results could be achieved through genetic manipulation, or by infecting mosquitoes with a bacteria that would alter the males' sperm to disrupt the reproduction cycle. However, officials caution that with the "high season" of mosquitoes underway and lasting into May, the deployment of such measures on a large scale would be organizationally impossible.

Last update: Sun, 14/02/2016 - 11:17
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