On February 1st 2016, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” This mosquito transmitted virus might seem mild on the surface with its short-lived rash and flu-like symptoms, but it has been linked to devastating birth defects, as well as to the life-threatening Guillain–Barré syndrome. Although the Zika outbreak is primarily located in Latin America, cases have been reported in the U.S. and throughout the world. We still have much to learn about this virus and its effects, but Operation Blessing is on the front lines to help fight Zika at this critical time through practical care, preventive efforts, education, and our innovative use of mosquito-eating fish, turtles and crustaceans. It is important to stop the virus at its source, and these bug-busting creatures could provide the perfect solution.
Operation Blessing has ramped up its fight against the Zika virus in El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Mexico and Haiti through efforts including the distribution of bed nets and insect repellent to pregnant women, pre-natal care, fumigation, and educational programs on avoiding infection and preventing mosquito breeding. We are also supporting programs that use fish, turtles and crustaceans to devour mosquito larvae in standing water around homes and villages. In El Salvador, Operation Blessing has partnered with a facility specializing in the mosquito-eating Sambo fish found in their native waters. Thanks to generous supporters like you, we are able to make a real difference in the lives of those facing the threat of Zika.
*For up to the minute information on Zika check with the Center for Disease Control.
The Zika virus was first discovered in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947 in the rhesus macaque monkey. It is related to other mosquito transmitted diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and West Nile virus.
Zika is primarily transmitted through mosquito bites. It can also be passed sexually and from a mother to her unborn child, putting the child at risk for microcephaly. Evidence suggests that it might be transmitted through infected blood as well.
Zika is currently active in much of Central America, South America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. However, cases of Zika have been reported in the U.S. and throughout the world. If you plan to travel, be sure to check with the CDC for an updated list of affected areas. Pregnant women are being cautioned not to travel to these regions, and anyone who does travel to them should protect themselves from mosquitoes. As the prevalence of this virus rises, it could potentially spread throughout the U.S.
The main concern is for pregnant mothers and their unborn children in Zika affected areas due to the link between Zika and microcephaly, but anyone is at risk for catching the virus.
Zika symptoms include rash, fever, conjunctivitis, joint pain, muscle pain, and headache. While the incubation period is as yet unknown, the symptoms are generally mild, lasting from a few days to a week. Zika is rarely fatal, and 80% of people infected show no symptoms at all. However, there is a suspected link between Zika and the virus-induced Guillain–Barré syndrome, which causes the immune system to attack the nervous system, leading to weakness, tingling, and in some cases, temporary paralysis. If the vital organs are affected, the syndrome can become life-threatening. While most people recover from Guillain–Barré, they may experience weakness for up to several years.
There is no specific treatment or vaccine available at this time, although the symptoms can be treated. Health care professionals are hard at work on this issue.
Current Zika prevention is focused primarily around the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry it. Prevention methods include insect repellent, bed nets, fumigation, regularly changing standing water, and cleaning areas that hold standing water. Mosquito-eating organisms such as fish, turtles and copepods can also be introduced to water sources to eat the mosquito larvae.
At this point, scientists are convinced of the connection between Zika and the birth of babies with microcephaly. Health experts believe that mothers infected by the virus can pass it in utero to their unborn children, causing birth defects, although they do not yet know for certain which stages pregnancy might leave the child the most susceptible. Microcephaly results in an abnormally small head, and can lead to brain damage, seizure disorders, vision and hearing loss, feeding problems, and shortened life-span.
As we move into the future, the best methods of mosquito eradication will likely be biological ones. Operation Blessing first utilized fish as a means of battling mosquitoes in post-Katrina New Orleans. After the hurricane, thousands of swimming pools across the city had been abandoned, creating the perfect mosquito breeding ground. Operation Blessing placed mosquito larvae eating fish in the pools, drastically reducing the mosquito population and averting further crisis.
Since then we have continued our biological mosquito control research around the globe with mosquito-eating fish, juvenile turtles and small crustaceans called copepods, creating our Operation Blessing “Bug-Busters Dream Team.” All of these creatures are powerful weapons against mosquitoes, devouring their larvae before they can grow into deadly adults.
Unlike DDT and other chemical agents with their dangerous side effects such as cancer, infertility, miscarriage, developmental delay and damage to the nervous system and liver, these animals can be safely introduced into human environments. In fact, copepods have nearly eradicated the Aedes aegypti that were responsible for spreading dengue fever in Vietnam—the same mosquito behind the current Zika outbreak in Latin America.
Zika is carried by a mosquito known as Aedes aegypti or its first cousin the Aedes albopictus (Asian Tiger Mosquito). These tiny, quick mosquitoes are black with white stripes that are hard to see with the naked eye. Their favorite place to live is in houses close to people, or buildings where animals are kept. They often breed in the water basins kept in homes in Latin America. The mosquitoes bite both day and night, and they hide in closets, laundry baskets, wardrobes, or almost any dark spot in the home. Because they are so small, it is possible for a person to be bitten multiple times without realizing it.
Viruses like Zika are transmitted by the adult female Aedes mosquito. She bites because she requires a blood meal every day or so to nurture the eggs inside her body. During her brief life of just a few weeks, she lays eggs 3-5 times with approximately 100 eggs in a batch. She spreads the eggs around, gluing them to the sides of containers close to water level. The eggs hatch when they get wet, and larvae emerge after a few days, developing into pupae, and finally into flying insects. The resilient eggs can lay dormant for many months and still produce mosquitoes. However, it takes about six days for the larvae to become an adult, so if water is changed regularly, mosquitoes cannot reproduce.