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Zika Virus Invades Puerto Rico

2016-03-19

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Puerto Rico is about to experience an epidemic of Zika virus.  A quarter of the population of the island will have Zika within the next year; eventually eighty percent of the 3.5 million residents will have been infected.  Puerto Rico is a very dangerous spot for mosquito-borne infections because its sub-tropical climate is perfect for mosquitoes.  There are also many people on the island who are exposed to mosquitoes due to lack of screening on windows and lack of air-conditioned spaces indoors.  Most people living in Puerto Rico are poor and unable to afford any defenses against mosquitoes.

The New York Times, in the article cited above, states that thousands of workers needed to control mosquitoes have been laid off.  In addition, the chemical used to fight adult mosquitoes no longer works, and the one used to attack larvae has been taken off the market.  Nonetheless, the island’s health agencies have been doing their best to install screens in schools and clean up trash where standing pools of water can incubate mosquito larvae.  Insecticide spraying has begun in many communities, although it is unlikely to be very effective.

Puerto Rico is in better shape than Brazil was because of the early warning that health officials have received.  Only 249 confirmed cases of Zika virus have been reported so far, but officials believe many more cases have gone unreported.  Workers are emphasizing protection of pregnant women, including wearing pants and using DEET insect repellent regularly.  Putting screens on the windows in high schools can help because many girls in high school are already pregnant.

An agent in use since 1965 was discontinued by the manufacturer recently.  The drug, temephos, is effective against mosquito larvae, but it didn’t have sufficient safety data on hand according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  When the testing, which would cost $3 million, was demanded, the company that makes it decided to simply stop making it.  Apparently the profit from making the drug wasn’t sufficient to justify the testing.  There is still a nine month supply on hand in Puerto Rico, and the EPA could issue an emergency decree to make more.

The other problem besides mosquitoes is that Zika is transmitted sexually, and distribution of condoms is being tried to help block this method of spread.  However, most islanders are Catholic, and the Church prohibits the use of “artificial” birth control methods.  Instead, the Church has told its members to practice self-restraint.  This is a particular problem because even pregnant women need to be protected from sexual transmission with condoms.

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