HEALTH

Zika may be spread by 2nd mosquito, researchers say, posing threat to Olympics

  • A Culex tarsalis female mosquito. (Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images) (2004 Getty Images)

    A Culex tarsalis female mosquito. (Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images) (2004 Getty Images)  (2004 Getty Images)

Dusk was falling and the day cooling in Alto da Conquista, a working-class community on the northern edge of Recife's metropolitan area. 

“My feet are full of bites," Jaqueline Vieira de Souza told Fox News Latino. "There are a lot [of mosquitoes] at this time of day. I have to close everything up because otherwise, later, they eat everyone. There's no basic sanitation here, and there's a lot of woods.”

Vieira de Souza sits in an easy chair, holding her four-month-old son, Daniel, who was diagnosed with microcephaly in March. She grew up in the neighborhood and loves it here, she says, but she's afraid of the mosquitoes.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which breeds in small pools of water in and around people’s homes, has become infamous as the carrier of the Zika virus, which the World Health Organization strongly suspects is tied to microcephaly. But a second type of mosquito – the Culex, researchers are discovering, may also be carrying the virus.

Recife is the epicenter of the Zika crisis, but the mosquito-breeding conditions Vieira de Souza describes are common in Brazil, and the spread of the virus will be on everyone's mind in August, when hundreds of athletes from nearly every country in the world gather in Rio de Janeiro to participate in the Olympic Games.

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If the Culex mosquito is or becomes involved, places in the country that are less affected by the epidemic, such as Rio, may be hit harder.

According to the Brazilian Ministry of Health's microcephaly bulletin, roughly 80 percent of the potential cases reported – or 5,270 – have come from Brazil's northeast. As of March 22, the state of Rio de Janeiro had reported 308 cases.

One of the big reasons could be raw sewage.

The Recife area is home to roughly 4 million people, yet only one-third of the buildings have sewer and water hook ups, according to Compesa, the company that manages its sewer and water utility. And untreated sewage is a fact of life across Brazil.

An Associated Press investigation last year about the water quality in Rio where Olympic events will be held showed an abundance of bacteria and viruses thanks to contamination from sewage.

New research from the FioCruz Institute in Recife has found that the Culex or Southern house mosquito, which breeds in water tainted by sewage, can be infected with the Zika virus in a laboratory. Research is continuing to determine if the Culex is carrying Zika in the wild.

If confirmed, the implications would be wide-ranging: The Culex mosquito has a habitat that reaches as far north as the United States.

On March 23rd the federal government announced that it would be investing 649 million reals (nearly $177.5 million) to combat the Zika virus in research, vaccine development and sewage infrastructure, among other initiatives.

In February, the federal government indicated it would provide roughly $82 million worth of mosquito repellent to poor pregnant women. More than 90 percent of the babies born with microcephaly in Brazil have been delivered at public hospitals – an indicator that they are born into low-income households.

Vieira de Souza has been living mainly on donations since separating from Daniel’s father. “When we had a special baby, there were a lot more [fights],” she explained.

All her disability pension for being a cancer survivor now goes to pay rent, debts and the cost of her older son's education. All her other expenses are paid for by received through Head and Heart, a site that connects families who have babies with microcephaly to  those who want to help.

“Last week, a young woman gave me 20 tins of milk,” Vieira de Souza said, adding that she shared some of that milk with other mothers in similar circumstances. “I saw someone who needed something, and I helped. I'm being blessed, so I should be able to bless others as well.”

Vieira de Souza recently completed the paperwork for a disability pension for Daniel, but she suspects she will have to fight for it in court to receive it.

For the public health researcher André Monteiro Costa, of FioCruz, the money spent on repellents and insecticides misses the point.

“This whole strategy, the use of poison,” Monteiro Costa told FNL, “it's associated with the problem inside people's homes, so the problem becomes the people's problem.”

Unlike the Aedes mosquito, the Culex doesn't breed as much in and around houses – so the preventive measures being taken, like fumigating homes, are designed for maximum impact against the Aedes mosquito, not the Culex

Monteiro Costa says that to deal with the mosquito-borne epidemics, Brazil must address its social inequalities which are reflected in its infrastructure issues.

Jailson Correia, the Health Secretary for Recife, agreed with Monteiro Costa that the city's sewer infrastructure must be improved, but he says, there is an urgency that also requires short-term action.

“We are concerned with the babies being born [in] October of this year,” Correia said, “so we need to work very hard to stop that happening – to reduce the [immediate] burden of the disease.”

Zoe Sullivan is an independent journalist and radio producer currently based in Brazil.

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