There’s a Cheap Fix in Zika Virus’s Ground Zero

To stop the ‘explosive’ spread of the virus in Brazil, people need screens—but they’re nearly impossible to come by.

Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

PADRE PARAISO, Brazil — In the bathroom, they favor the mirrors and humid shower stalls. In the bedroom, they lie in wait under the bed and inside the wardrobe. A thump on the sofa will always launch a few into the air in the living room.

They are, of course, mosquitos—and they’re inside every house here. The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, said Thursday that the mosquito-borne Zika virus is “spreading explosively” through the Americas. From this isolated rural town of 20,000, eight hours from Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais, it’s easy to see why. With no screens on the windows, a hot summer means sharing your home with mosquitos.

The Brazilian government recommends screens as the most effective method to protect against the insects, but aside from the occasional bedroom window, screens are nearly nonexistent here—no matter how wealthy the inhabitant.

When I arrived in December with my husband and toddler son to spend a few months with family, one of our first items of business was to find someone to build frames for the rolls of screen we had brought with us. We thought it would be simple. Six weeks later, we still haven’t found anyone who knows anything about screens.

Striking Photos of Zika’s Rapid Spread

I’ve seen just one house in the area with screens on all the windows, the handiwork of an American expat who brought a do-it-yourself kit from a Maine Home Depot. But even she was not able to solve the problem of the screen door—and a hardy few mosquitos have still managed to get inside her farmhouse.

Still, Zika, which is being linked to a range of birth defects, including an alarming increase in newborns with microcephaly, has not officially arrived in Padre Paraiso. The worst hit Brazilian state is Pernambuco, to the north. Zika has been getting closer though, discovered in the Minas Gerais cities of Curvelo and Uba in mid-January.

The WHO estimates that 1.5 million Brazilians will eventually be infected by the virus, and 3 million to 4 million in total in the Americas. It has already spread to 23 countries, including the United States.

While Brazil’s federal government is sending out 200,000 soldiers to educate the populace and help stop the spread of Zika, the mayor of Padre Paraiso has dispensed advice via Facebook, recommending that residents eliminate any standing water inside their homes. They are also urged to secure trash tightly in plastic bags, instead of tossing it out in boxes or littering.

This is serious advice in a town where garbage is collected from open metal baskets suspended off the ground to keep stray dogs away, but trash is routinely discarded on the street all around those baskets. Water that accumulates in, say, a small box or a beer can left on the side of the road is a perfect breeding ground for Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads Zika, chikungunya, yellow fever, and dengue, which is also an epidemic in Brazil.

The metal basket and accumulated trash outside our home is on the bank of a stream overgrown with vegetation that the mayor’s office has been promising to clean up for several years—and it is another excellent breeding ground for mosquitos.

Standing water was also found in many homes when we arrived in December, as the town was in the throes of its most serious drought in years. Rivers all around the area had dried up, and taps ran dry after 3 p.m. in several neighborhoods. More than a few residents in those areas kept open buckets of water for household use.

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Mosquitos were rampant, and the most common complaint on the street—aside from the ferocious heat—was sleepless nights caused by buzzing mosquitos. Along with a plug-in mosquito repellent whose health effects I have not been able to determine, the most common deterrent here is an electric fan, which must be perfectly placed to create a steady rush of air over the sleeper’s entire body to be effective.

One particularly stifling night, my upper right arm must have fallen out of the fan zone—when I awoke in the morning, I counted 36 bites. Mosquito nets are particularly unpopular, as they also must be perfectly placed and make a hot night even hotter.

The rains that arrived in the second week of January pushed all talk of mosquitos to the back burner. The first days of rain were rejoiced as a “bençao de Deus,” or a blessing from God. But as the downpours stretched into a third week without letting up, and the steady stream of water trickled down many a wall, worries began to mount.

In nearby Teófilo Otoni, more than 600 residents were displaced by landslides. Portions of the BR-116, the highway that bisects Padre Paraiso, were flooded. On the last steady day of rain, a massive hole opened in the center of town above the winding stream, and my husband’s uncle was one of two men who fell in when the sidewalk they were walking on disappeared.

Now the sun is out again here, and the mosquitos will be back. On Wednesday, the city of Timóteo, four hours away, declared a state of emergency over an outbreak of dengue. All signs point to Zika arriving in Padre Paraiso sooner rather than later—and the simple window screen, ubiquitous across the United States, won’t be here to help stop its spread.