Brazil talks of ‘a huge national mobilisation’ against the mosquito but this is likely to remain but a dream as the government has repeatedly failed the governed

The Zika virus is the latest horror to hit humanity, but it is a horror that is only too familiar to us, sadly, as we have been here before. Without wishing to minimise the threat of the Zika virus, let us remember that malaria still kills thousands, particularly children, in certain countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, and that other mosquito-borne diseases are not uncommon, indeed seem to be on the rise.

For example, the West Indies have recently seen the spread of chikungunya another nasty disease spread by mosquitoes which also has no vaccine as yet.

Given that a vaccine for malaria is still some way away, and the same goes for Zika and chikungunya, the only strategy at present available to us is prevention. The tragedy is that prevention, while having great success in certain parts of the world, is still not working in others.

Here is a Brazilian doctor on what needs to be done, quoted in the Guardian:

“The main thing now is to combat the mosquitoes,” he said. “This is being done with a huge national mobilisation, including state companies, government ministries, city mayors and the army. Basically, the risk is anything that collects still water in the open, be it rainwater, drinking water or something else. These receptacles need to be removed or covered.

“Water tanks need to be protected with lids or nets so that mosquitoes can’t lay eggs. If that is not possible, then larvicide should be applied to prevent them from attracting mosquitoes. This could apply to uncovered cisterns, pools, fountains in public parks and buildings that hold water without proper drainage. Even drinking water can be treated with larvicide.”

All of which makes sound sense and sounds as if it should be quite easy to put into practice. However, in countries affected by Zika, getting everyone to use a mosquito net and to destroy the breeding grounds of mosquitoes is quite hard to achieve.

And yet it has been done in countries like the United States and Italy, which were both once malarial hotspots. In other words, the stark truth is this: in countries where people are affected by mosquito-borne diseases, the real culprit is not the mosquitoes, it is poor government, organisation and leadership.

While Brazil talks of ‘a huge national mobilisation’ against the mosquito, this is likely to remain but a dream in a country where government has repeatedly failed the governed.

While mosquito nets, when used properly, are very effective against the spread of malaria, and would do the same for Zika, it is hard to get people to use them. One debate that may reopen is the use of pesticides to get rid of mosquitoes.

Back in the day, DDT had some success in combatting malaria, but the weight of scientific opinion has now turned against the use of DDT and it is seen as ineffective, though the onset of Zika is likely to reopen the debate in certain quarters.

There may be other ways of combating mosquitoes, though, which are more ecologically friendly and ultimately more effective. I once lived in house, in a land much troubled by mosquitoes, where we were mosquito free thanks to a colony of bats. These inoffensive but maligned animals voraciously eat mosquitoes, and are to be encouraged: moreover they are nocturnal, just like mosquitoes.

Meanwhile, if you are in a place where getting Zika is a possibility (or malaria or chikungunya for that matter), please take sensible precautions: sleep under a net, wear long sleeves and long trousers, preferably in light colours, and smear your person with insect repellent.

These methods are not perfect, but they will reduce the risk considerably.

As for getting pregnant, that is a risk, but with sensible precautions as outlined above, that risk can be minimised.

The incidence of Zika at present seems not to justify some of the reactions it has elicited.

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Jan 20 2016 cover