In much of Latin America, low income families live in homes with open windows and no screens. In these tropical rural areas, people survive without reliable electricity or fans, so only the breeze provides relief from oppressive heat. Open windows and doors allow for maximum air flow, but mosquitoes, flies and rodents also enjoy easy access to homes.
Until a recent trip to Haiti that started specifically as a mosquito control planning visit, I had no idea of the magnitude of suffering the poor are subjected to from diseases spread by common pests like house flies, mice and rats. OBI’s long-time strategic ally, Dr. Claudia Riegel, opened my eyes to a myriad of under-the-radar health challenges from unrelenting attacks by disease-carrying pests.
Dr. Riegel serves as director of the New Orleans Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board. We have worked together since our post-Hurricane Katrina mosquito-control efforts in 2006. A few weeks ago, I asked her to meet me in Haiti to inspect the campus of our home for abandoned children and to help us craft a strategy to turn Zanmi Beni into a “No Fly Zone.” Dr. Riegel mentioned that while visiting, she would also inspect our site to see if there might be other pest-related threats to the health of the kids. Fortunately, because Zanmi Beni is kept so meticulously clean, minimal tweaking was required to continue keeping the children safe. But Dr. Riegel’s inspection protocol brought our attention to the pest-related dangers most poor families face.
Most Americans do not think of common pests as carriers of dangerous diseases — but in poor countries, they are a real and present danger. The link between mosquito bites and Zika is obvious, but it’s harder to see the connection between flies and dysentery or tuberculosis, or the link between mice and salmonella or hemorrhagic fever. These links are real and cause untold suffering but remain under the community awareness radar. The links need to become well publicized and then broken.
Here are a couple examples of how common pests spread disease: House flies cannot chew solid food so they vomit saliva and digestive juices onto solid food in order to liquefy and slurp it up. Sound gross? It gets worse. Flies love to feed on decaying animals, garbage and raw sewage — then fly into homes, land on food then regurgitate saliva, thereby transferring pathogens that can cause a myriad of diseases. Rats and mice also spread diseases by defecating and urinating inside homes, especially near food. A single mouse drops as many as 70 fecal pellets every 24 hours. The animal’s waste is very dangerous. Just breathing dust from dried out droppings spreads disease.
How can OBI help prevent pest-borne disease? Dr. Riegel explained it this way: “Conventional pest control involves ‘big hammer’ methods like spray programs or poison baits. These methods are immediately effective, but expensive, can be harmful to people, kills beneficial insects and worse — big hammer effects are short-lived and the pests are soon back.” She explained that a better strategy is called “integrated pest management,” which “utilizes lots of little hammers that pound pests into long term oblivion.” Weapons in the war against pests include reduction of pest habitat, biological controls and, most important of all, grass roots community education.
Awareness of the links between pests and disease opens eyes and stimulates change in cultural practices like garbage piles, open access to raw sewage and unprotected food. When we show a mother how she can prevent her child from getting sick, she pays attention. But until residents become aware of these links it’s not possible to convince them why things need change. OBI is ideally suited to deliver these messages. Our community health workers are well respected and local leaders know that we are there to help because we have already proved the purity of our intent.
I’m excited to announce that in coming months, with cooperation from Dr. Riegel and her New Orleans team of specialists, we will roll out an integrated pest management curriculum that will begin with a teaching seminar for OBI community development managers from several countries.
Your support in helping us create “No Fly Zones” in Haiti and many other countries will alleviate suffering and demonstrate Christian compassion in action.