World / Science & Health

Brazil 'losing battle' with mosquito, readies 220,000 troops for eradication effort


Brazil’s health minister says the country is sending some 220,000 troops to battle the mosquito blamed for spreading a virus suspected of causing birth defects — but he also says the war is already being lost.

Marcelo Castro said that nearly 220,000 members of Brazil’s Armed Forces would go door-to-door to help in mosquito eradication efforts ahead of the country’s Carnival celebrations. Agency spokesman Nivaldo Coelho said Tuesday details of the deployment are still being worked out.

Castro also said the government would distribute mosquito repellent to some 400,000 pregnant women who receive cash-transfer benefits.

But the minister also said the country has failed in efforts against the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

“The mosquito has been here in Brazil for three decades, and we are badly losing the battle against the mosquito,” the ministers told reporters in a statement as a crisis group on Zika was meeting in Brasilia.

A massive eradication effort eliminated Aedes aegypti from Brazil during the 1950s, but the mosquito slowly returned over the following decades from neighboring nations, public health experts have said. That led to outbreaks of dengue, which was recorded in record numbers last year.

The arrival of Zika in Brazil last year initially caused little alarm, as the virus’ symptoms are generally much milder than those of dengue. It didn’t become a crisis until late in the year, when researchers made the link with a dramatic increase in reported cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect that sees babies born with unusually small heads and can cause lasting developmental problems.

The World Health Organization repeated Tuesday that the link remains circumstantial and is not yet proven scientifically.

But worry about the rapid spread of Zika has expanded across the nation, and the hemisphere beyond. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to reconsider travel to Brazil and 21 other countries and territories with Zika outbreaks.

One of them, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, reported 18 new confirmed cases of Zika on Tuesday, though none involves pregnant women. One case had been reported earlier.

Officials in El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil have suggested women stop getting pregnant until the crisis has passed.

Repellent has disappeared from many Brazilian pharmacies and prices for the product have tripled or even quadrupled where it’s still available in recent weeks since the government announced a suspected link between Zika virus and microcephaly

Nearly 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil since October, compared with fewer than 150 cases in the country in all of 2014.

Castro’s remarks have proven controversial, both in and outside Brazil.

World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier said he hadn’t seen the remarks, “but in general terms I think that this would be a bit of a fatalistic approach because this should mean we could lay down all our approaches now and declare the war lost.

“I don’t think this is the case,” he added at WHO headquarters, in Geneva.

In Brazil, some called for Castro to be fired.

“He is incapable of occupying his position,” wrote Helio Gurovitz, a columnist with G1, the internet portal of the Globo television network. “To prove that Castro doesn’t have the capacity to occupy such an important position, at such a delicate moment with the spread of the epidemic, all that’s needed is a selection of such comments.”

Both Brazil’s Zika outbreak and the spike in microcephaly have been concentrated in the poor and underdeveloped northeast of the country, though the prosperous southeast, where Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are located, are the second hardest-hit region. Rio de Janeiro will host the Aug. 5-21 Olympics.

On Tuesday, officials in Rio also ramped up their fight against the Aedes aegypti, dispatching a team of fumigators to the Sambadrome, where the city’s Carnival parades will take place next month, and the region’s governor was distributing mosquito-fighting vehicles for poor suburbs of the city.

Officials in another hard-hit South American country, Colombia, also ramped up efforts against Zika on Tuesday.

Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria visited the city of Ibague, a hotbed of Zika, to start a “Tour of Colombia” campaign to educate local officials on how to fight the mosquitoes. Colombian officials say they’ve recorded more than 13,500 suspected cases and President Juan Manuel Santos said there could be 600,000 cases by year’s end.

The WHO’s Lindmeier said Tuesday that the U.N. agency plans a special session on the virus during a Geneva meeting of its executive board on Rio de Janeiro sent fumigators Tuesday into the city’s carnival stadium, which will also be used for Olympic archery in August, to combat an outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The sight of men in protective overalls and goggles spraying the famous Sambadrome facility was a grim confirmation of just how worried Brazil is becoming that the virus scare will tarnish both the carnival and upcoming Summer Olympics.

The Sambadrome will host Rio’s elaborate annual parades on Feb. 7 and 8, and also the archery contest during the Games.

“The concern is very great in all of Rio because it’s a city for mega events. During the carnival there’ll be crowds of people from different parts of the world and Brazil, which will help the virus get in,” said Marcos Vinicius Ferreira, spokesman for Rio’s health department.

“The main thing is to get rid of mosquito breeding sites,” he said.

Zika is linked to serious birth defects, including microcephaly, in which babies born to women infected during pregnancy have abnormally small heads.

A surge in incidents across Latin America, notably in Brazil, has prompted the United States and other governments to warn pregnant women against traveling to the region — an alarming prospect for Brazil as it gears up to stage the Olympics.

Unlike in some other international health scares, the Zika virus is not spread person to person. And for most people who get infected, the flu-like symptoms will clear up in about a week.

Brazil is mobilizing more than 200,000 troops to go “house to house” in the battle against Zika-carrying mosquitoes, blamed for causing horrific birth defects in a major regional health scare, a report said Monday.

Soldiers will fan out to homes across Brazil distributing leaflets and dispensing advice, Health Minister Marcelo Castro was quoted as saying by the newspaper O Globo, signaling a major ramping up of efforts against the Zika virus.

Castro said that the government, under growing pressure to deal with the crisis, will also hand out repellent to at least 400,000 pregnant women on social welfare.

The World Health Organization says it suspects a link between the mosquito-borne Zika virus and a rare birth defect that gives babies abnormally small heads, but says so far the evidence is “circumstantial” and more research is needed.

With Brazil in particular hit by a large Zika outbreak as well as some 4,000 cases of cases of microcephaly, director-general Dr. Margaret Chan and other WHO officials noted the coincidence of a potentially debilitating condition for newborns from pregnant mothers who may have been bitten by virus-carrying mosquitoes.

“Although a causal link between Zika infection in pregnancy and microcephaly has not been established, the circumstantial evidence is suggestive and extremely worrisome,” Dr. Chan said in a statement. “An increased occurrence of neurological syndromes, noted in some countries coincident with arrival of the virus, adds to the concern.”

The U.N. health agency announced plans to hold a “special session” in Geneva on Thursday to brief member states about Zika on the sidelines of a WHO executive board meeting, reflecting a virus that has fanned increasing concern through the Americas and beyond.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the U.N.’s Geneva office, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the “big task” of health officials is to try to establish a link between the virus and microcephaly, which involves abnormally small heads in newborns and can affect brain development.

The virus, which has been around for decades, has no known link to cases of microcephaly, Lindmeier said, adding that a 1997 outbreak of Zika in Africa was not associated with any cases of microcephaly,

“That’s why it’s so important to look now into this connection and see what is going on there,” he said.

Outbreaks of the Zika virus have been recorded in 21 countries in the Americas and 10 in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, although Brazil has been the epicenter — and also has tallied some 4,000 microcephaly cases, he said. El Salvador, Panama, Colombia and Cape Verde also have had “large outbreaks” of the Zika virus, he said.

Lindmeier said “of course, it could spread further.”

“We don’t know how it spreads, we don’t know even where the mosquito does get the virus from,” he said.

He noted, however, that Zika itself “and this is again very important — is not a dangerous disease. It has milder symptoms than dengue or chikungunya or yellow fever.”

One of the tasks facing health authorities is to rid the breeding places of the Aedes mosquitoes that carry the virus and foster “personal protection” measures among citizens, he said.