Growing up in South Carolina, our town used to send around a truck to spray a mixture of Malathion and diesel fuel to kill mosquitoes. We also had a pump attached to our pump lawn mower to billow a cloud of this gas. The mosquitoes were so fierce that at times you literally could not go outside lest you fall into mania like Katharine Hepburn in “The African Queen.”
Moving water like a stream or river is not a problem, but a tire or can filled with water or a ditch is something to avoid. Yet tires and cans filled with water dot the landscape in wide swaths of countries like Brazil, El Salvador, and Colombia.
Now one particular mosquito, the aedes aegypti spreading across Latin America and the Caribbean, is said by the authorities to be the carrier of the Zika virus, which in pregnant women can saddle their babies with disfiguring malady called encephalitis, which leaves newborns with shrunken heads. Many or most of them will be disabled and dependent on parents or the state to care for them for the rest of their lives.
Brazil was the first to sound the alarm as a million people in that country have been infected. Airlines, cruise ships, and hotels have offering refunds to fearful passengers and international companies are letting employees forgo their trips.
Governments around the world and the WHO (World Health Organization) and CDC (Center for Disease Control) have gone on the offensive to try to coordinate a multinational network of doctors to combat Zika’s prevalence.
This is not the first time that man has gone to war against the mosquito. One of the first philanthropic endeavors of the Rockefeller family was to help drain marshes in Italy to get rid of mosquito habitat where malaria spread. Walter Reed, an American Major in the military, led the initial effort to identify that mosquitos spread Yellow Fever, and eradicate them. He sent doctors to fever-ravaged Cuba, which America had recently talked from Spain, where they established protocols to control its spread.
The Americans were said to have been able the finally build the Panama Canal, where the French could not, in part because they could control the mosquitoes.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
Now the WHO wants to bring back the use of the banned chemical DDT, which was once thought to be deadly. DDT wiped out malaria in the developing world and almost the entire developing world but is surging back again in places like Africa.
How does China fair in this situation? The country has had three confirmed cases so far. The first was a 34-year-old man who had travelled to Venezuela. The man is fine now, but the country is not. There have been press reports in the Spanish language press that the government there has tried to muzzle some of the news of Zika and government ineptitude when they should be doing the exact opposite: to educate people of its threat.
Many Chinese citizens are working in Latin American mining and infrastructure projects. Infrastructure projects are by definition in places where there is not enough infrastructure and sanitation. Zika has been found in the flat coastal areas of Ecuador where China is building that country’s largest petroleum refinery. Chinese engineers are working there along with many Australians and local people.
The Shanghai Daily reported that after its third infection, China is stepping up monitoring and taking other action. Globalization and trade have made it easier for mosquitoes to hop a ride right through agricultural customs. China does have some marshy areas where mosquitoes might breed, and the country now is sampling some passengers coming from certain origins in Latin America. They will have to cast their net wider as the latest victim had been to Fiji, an island in the Pacific, and not Latin America, thus showing how the disease is spreading around the globe.
China is already combating the proliferation of mosquitoes in Guangdong by releasing sterile ones into the area. The male mosquitoes have been rendered infertile by infecting them with a bacteria, which can be passed on through generations of mosquito larvae. The goal there is not to get rid of the aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika necessarily, but instead target Dengue fever, which causes agonizing pain and sometimes death. Aedes aegypti also carries Dengue and other diseases.
The sterile-bacteria-mosquito approach to Zika is being set aside in Brazil by a more ambitious idea to release genetically modified mosquitoes. Early experiments by British genetic scientists have worked, and it’s already gone live in Brazil. These bionic mosquitoes give birth to offspring who soon die; then the parent mosquito dies as well.
There also is an effort around the world to find a vaccine. That is a process that could take years.
Lacking a better idea, El Salvador simply told its fertile females to stop having sex for two years. A more realistic tactic would be that if you have to go the Brazil or Venezuela use bug spray, wear long sleeves, and stay inside the hotel or office. A pregnant woman or one who might become pregnant should probably not go at all. The problem of trying to avoid proximity is the mosquito is certain to move into other areas that people can hardly avoid, like the southern United States.