Brazil's Health Minister Marcelo Castro said the country will mobilize hundreds of thousands of troops to battle the mosquito blamed for spreading the Zika virus, suspected of causing birth defects. Despite those efforts, he reportedly said Tuesday, the battle is being lost.
He said that nearly 220,000 members of Brazil's armed forces would go door to door to help in mosquito eradication efforts before Carnival celebrations, according to Rio de Janeiro's O Globo newspaper. It also quoted him as saying the government would distribute mosquito repellent to some 400,000 pregnant women who receive cash-transfer benefits.
And all the major Brazilian dailies quoted Castro as saying the country is "badly losing the battle" against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
"The mosquito has been here in Brazil for three decades, and we are badly losing the battle against the mosquito," Folha de S. Paulo newspaper quoted him as saying as a crisis group on Zika was meeting in the capital, Brasília.
Emails to Castro's office for comment were not immediately answered.
A massive eradication effort eliminated Aedes aegypti from Brazil during the 1950s, but the mosquito slowly returned from neighboring nations. That led to outbreaks of dengue, which was recorded in record numbers last year.
The arrival of Zika in Brazil last year initially caused little alarm, as symptoms of infection by the virus are generally much milder than dengue’s. It didn't become a crisis until late in the year, when researchers made the link to a dramatic increase in reported cases of microcephaly, a rare condition in which babies are born with unusually small heads, causing lasting developmental problems.
Nearly 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil since October, compared with fewer than 150 cases in the country in all of 2014.
Worry about the rapid spread of Zika has expanded across the nation and to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to reconsider travel to Brazil and 21 other countries and territories with Zika outbreaks. Officials in El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil have suggested women stop getting pregnant until the crisis has passed.
Since the government announced the suspected link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, mosquito repellents have disappeared from many Brazilian pharmacies, and prices for the products have tripled or even quadrupled where it's still available.
Castro's remarks have proved controversial in and outside Brazil.
World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier said he hadn't seen Castro's remarks. "But in general terms, I think that this would be a bit of a fatalistic approach, because this should mean we could lay down all our approaches now and declare the war lost," he said at the agency's headquarters in Geneva. "I don't think this is the case."
In Brazil, some called for Castro to be fired. "He is incapable of occupying his position," wrote Helio Gurovitz, a columnist for G1, the Internet portal of the Globo television network. "To prove that Castro doesn't have the capacity to occupy such an important position at such a delicate moment, with the spread of the epidemic, all that's needed is a selection of such comments."
Brazil's Zika outbreak and the spike in microcephaly have been concentrated in the poor and underdeveloped northeast of the country; the prosperous southeast, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, is the second-hardest-hit region. Rio de Janeiro will host the Olympic Games on Aug. 5 through 21.
On Tuesday, officials in Rio ramped up their fight against Aedes aegypti, dispatching a team of fumigators to the Sambadrome, where the city's Carnival parades will take place next month, and the region's governor was distributing mosquito-fighting vehicles for poor suburbs of the city.
Officials in another hard-hit South American country, Colombia, also ramped up efforts against Zika on Tuesday. Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria visited the city of Ibague, a hotbed of Zika, to start a Tour of Colombia campaign to educate local officials on how to fight the mosquitoes. Colombian officials say they have recorded more than 13,500 suspected cases, and President Juan Manuel Santos said there could be 600,000 cases by year's end.
Lindmeier said Tuesday that the WHO suspects a link between Zika and microcephaly but cautioned that the evidence is circumstantial. He said the agency plans a special session on the virus during a Geneva meeting of its executive board on Thursday.
The Associated Press