LATIN AMERICA – My wife Laura and I live in a house next to a wooded park here in Virginia. Mosquitoes from the woods are so thick after dark that we have to stay indoors, usually with the air conditioning running, or behind open windows with tightly fitted screens. For people in many parts of the world, however, mosquitoes are far more dangerous than a nuisance that interferes with evening relaxation.
Last week I was in a Honduran community where staying indoors doesn’t provide villagers any relief from blood-thirsty mosquitoes that come and go as they please. There are no screens on the doors or windows. To make matters worse, villagers do not have running water, so they stockpile water in numerous containers in and around their homes. This creates a perfect environment for prolific mosquito reproduction. The tiniest mosquitoes, those locally known as “ankle biters,” leave victims with more than itchy bumps. With ever-increasing regularity, mosquito bites in Latin America result in the dreaded virus called Zika.
The first discovery of Zika virus was found in 1947 in the blood of a monkey living in a remote Uganda woodland called the Zika Forest. Scientists suspected that mosquitoes were the carrier, but they were not sure. Researchers from the Rockefeller Foundation placed “sentinel monkeys” in cages on a tower high in the forest canopy where a certain type of mosquito lived. Soon one of the healthy monkeys came down with a 104 degree fever. After intensive study, scientists verified that Aedes africanus mosquitoes were the carrier.
It is believed that many Africans have a natural immunity to the virus, so there were no significant outbreaks until 2007 when the virus showed up in Yap, a remote island in the South Pacific, and in 2013 in French Polynesia, where thousands contracted Zika — but its effects were mild and there weren’t any reported birth defects.
Then, unfortunately, Zika got traction. In late 2014 there was a powerful El Niño and South America experienced unusually heavy rainfalls and high temperatures. The hot, wet conditions resulted in an explosion of the mosquito population and the incidence of dengue fever tripled in Brazil alone. That was bad enough, but countless people began reporting dengue-like symptoms that faded quickly and went away. In Brazil, people called it “doença misteriosa” (mysterious disease). Symptoms were mild and short-lived: rash, red-eye and achy joints for a week or so.
No one took it seriously until August, 2015, when Brazilian mothers who had experienced the mystery disease started giving birth to babies with tiny, deformed heads. A researcher described the newborns as “having normal faces up to the eyebrows and then no foreheads.” This condition, known as microcephaly, is but the tip of the ugly Zika iceberg. Millions of pregnant mothers all over Latin America and even the U.S. are at risk.
For the first time ever, a mosquito-borne virus is passing through the safe haven of a mother’s placenta and causing deformities or death in an unborn child. The other frightening aspect of the Zika virus is that it can also be transmitted sexually.
Mosquitoes have been a nemesis of mankind for eons, but while scientists were smart enough to put a man on the moon, they haven’t yet figured out how to get rid of the tiny insect that causes more human death than any other single animal. During the past 80 years, billions of gallons of DDT and other sprays have been used with mixed results. But these toxic chemicals have caused immeasurable harm to humans, wildlife and the environment. In spite of all the collateral damage and billions of dollars spent, mosquitoes still swarm in the woods of Virginia, villages in Central America and everywhere on earth except Antarctica and Iceland.
At OBI, we are committed to finding and using new and sustainable methods to eradicate mosquitoes and prevent disease. In the next issue of Blessings, I will address our game-changing pilot project in Honduras where we have deployed an integrated strategy utilizing the latest technology as well as living mosquito predators, all of which have been proven effective individually, but not as part of combined arsenal of tools that we are putting together to turn the tide against mosquito-borne disease — one community at a time.