• TNS/CHICAGO TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

    Brazil vs. the mosquito: Defeating the Zika virus before the Olympics begins

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    Brazil has dispatched nearly 250,000 military personnel to defeat an enemy that is wily and relentless: Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus.

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    The virus has been blamed for a spike in the number of infants born with brain damage in Brazil and other countries. The World Health Organization has declared a global emergency and is scrambling to contain Zika.

    The troops in Brazil, however, didn’t wield the typical weapons of mosquito warfare — trucks laden with insecticide, bottles of repellent, reams of netting. Instead they came armed with fliers. Yes, sheets of paper that instructed residents how to eradicate a pest that thrives in poor communities where residents gather water in rooftop tanks or containers, inadvertently creating ideal breeding conditions for the insect.

    These soldiers and residents battle an aggressive and resilient foe, and, increasingly, the fear, suspicion and misinformation that can sweep through communities with as much virulence as the virus itself.

    Is Brazil up to the challenge of defeating Zika in time for the Summer Olympics, set to begin in Rio de Janeiro this August? Stay tuned. This will get up close and personal. The country has a huge economic and political stake in staging a thrilling Olympiad, which doesn’t include a medal competition for mosquito swatting. Bronze won’t do.

    Brazilian leaders have donned T-shirts bearing a deceased cartoon mosquito for the optimistically dubbed “Zika Zero” campaign. There’s a catchy slogan: “A mosquito is not stronger than an entire country.”

    But Brazil is going to need more than a tag line to triumph in this fight. It will have to punch above its weight.

    The Zika crisis is only the latest Olympics-sized challenge for Brazil.

    Last August brought headlines that the sewage-clotted waters of Rio’s Guanabara Bay, site of the aquatic events at the Olympics, had sickened a South Korean windsurfer. He was hospitalized for dehydration, vomiting and dizziness after an Olympic sailing test.

    In September, the recession-bound country’s finances took a major hit, when its sovereign debt rating was cut to “junk.”

    And there’s a blossoming corruption scandal involving the state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The Brazilian president’s popularity is racing toward zero: Only about 5 percent of her constituents say she is doing a good or great job, Reuters reports. A recent poll found that 92 percent of Brazilians think the country is “not on the right track.” Ouch.

    And now … Zika.

    How goes the battle? Too early to tell. But there are cautionary tales from the front: One Brazil state recently halted the use of a mosquito larvicide after an Argentine doctor’s group warned that the chemical could be causing infant brain damage. Their proof? None. Zilch. Zero. Scientists in the U.S. and Brazil say that there is no scientific basis to make that claim, The Wall Street Journal reports.

    Some Brazilians blame Zika on a British biotech company that released a re-engineered mosquito strain. Others promote conspiracy theories that involve childhood vaccines. Some doubt the disease even exists. All of that could impede prevention.

    Zika — and the mosquito — can be vanquished. We’re happy to see that the World Health Organization has reversed course and signed on to our editorial board’s previously declared anti-mosquito crusade: Use genetically modified mosquitoes to wipe out pest populations. That is a smart long-term strategy, with emphasis on long.

    Brazil has only five-plus months before more than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries arrive. It has to show the world that after a muddled start, it can mount a credible campaign against Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

    Brazil will need to convince athletes that it is safe enough to compete, and convince potential visitors that it is safe enough to watch — particularly women who are pregnant or plan to try soon. We imagine there are quite a few airline and hotel reservations that are now on hold, as people around the world watch the epic battle of Brazil vs. the mosquito.

    ©2016 THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE / DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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