It will be an uphill battle.
Zika is causing a widening health scare across tropical and
subtropical regions of the Americas, where it has spread to over 20
In Brazil, where the virus is believed to have arrived in the
hemisphere before spreading via mosquitoes, it has been linked to a
brain defect in nearly 4,000 newborns.
But even as authorities knock on doors to warn people about the
virus and spray tourist sites and mosquito hotbeds with insecticide,
public health officials see no easy solution because the area is
rife with the insects that transmit Zika and there is no vaccine.
"We are losing the battle in a big way," Marcelo Castro, Brazil's
health minister, told reporters after meeting with President Dilma
Rousseff late on Monday.
Castro announced plans to deploy 220,000 troops in February to
distribute educational pamphlets and help scour cities for mosquito
The illness is minor for most people except pregnant women and
others affected by complications that scientists still struggle to
understand. Zika has become more widespread as the Aedes aegypti
mosquito that transmits the virus by biting an infected person has
migrated around the globe.
Early on Tuesday, just over a week before Rio kicks off annual
Carnival celebrations, the city deployed workers to spray
insecticide at the parade grounds where the marquee festivities
More than 3,000 municipal health agents are deployed across Rio
targeting mosquito hotbeds. Carnival and Olympic venues will be
inspected daily during the big events.
Governments and health agencies, including the World Health
Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, have cautioned pregnant women to consult physicians
before they travel to affected countries.
U.S. health officials are stepping up efforts to study the link
between Zika infections and birth defects in infants amid
predictions for widespread circulation of the virus within the
United States during warmer months.
But travel agents and hotel operators in Brazil say that, while they
are receiving a lot of questions about the precautions the
government is taking, the Zika scare has yet to lead to many
cancellations from would-be visitors.
Government sources told Reuters on Tuesday it is preparing an
international campaign through social media and travel agencies to
inform potential visitors about the virus, and what Brazil is doing
to fight it, in a bid to avoid any impact on the Olympics.
Warm-up festivities for Carnival in recent days have lured thousands
to street marches and block parties, even if the smell of insect
repellent now rivals that of the beer, sweat and urine more commonly
associated with the revelry.
The virus is expected to continue spreading apace because the Aedes
aegypti mosquito is notoriously adaptive.
The insect thrives in puddles, nooks and crannies common in Rio and
other tropical cities peppered with chaotic and unplanned
neighborhoods, where rainwater, open sewers and litter offer ample
"It is the perfect set-up for proliferation," said Isaac Bogoch, a
tropical infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital,
who published a scientific paper predicting Zika's rapid spread. "It
can keep spreading until we find a way to contain the virus or keep
the mosquitoes from transmitting it."
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Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and has caused limited
outbreaks ever since, most recently on Pacific islands in the last
decade. Officials believe it may have arrived in Brazil with a
traveler when the country hosted the 2014 World Cup.
So little is known about Zika that the believed association with
microcephaly, the brain defect in babies born to women thought to
have carried the virus, was not hypothesized until the Pacific
The link was only empirically tested when scientists began
collecting amniotic samples from mothers of affected children in
northeast Brazil last year.
Now, laboratories are rushing to produce a test that can identify
the virus quickly in suspected patients and, more significantly,
develop a vaccine, a process that scientists say will take years.
Meanwhile, doctors and public health administrators say the
challenge is to get citizens engaged in the struggle against the
Not only does poor development and gaping inequality across Latin
America provide ripe terrain for urban infestations, some residents
are dismissive or downright hostile toward a public sector that
often fails to provide basic health, sanitation, education and other
In Rio, health agents sometimes cannot even enter neighborhoods
because of crime and security risks.
"A lot of people don't want to hear anything the city or state has
to say," said Hermano de Castro, director of the National School of
Public Health at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a health institute run
by Brazil's government. "It's hard to get people involved when
health workers are considered outsiders."
Previous efforts to target Aedes aegypti have failed. The mosquito
is known to carry other tropical maladies, including yellow fever,
dengue and chikungunya.
Although authorities have sought to educate locals about the dangers
of stagnant water, dengue has worsened in recent years. Last year,
Rio registered 10 times as many cases as in 2014, including at least
The outbreaks come at a time when Rio's state government, strapped
for cash because of plummeting royalties from offshore oil fields,
has been forced to shutter hospitals and research laboratories.
"We can't even control dengue and now we have Zika to battle," said
Daniel Becker, a prominent pediatrician in Rio who, like many
doctors, fears the microcephaly scare might lead to a dangerous
surge in clandestine abortions in Brazil, where terminating
pregnancies is illegal.
(Reporting by Paulo Prada; Editing by Kieran Murray and James
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