An alarming 50 of pregnant women in Puerto Rico are becoming infected with the dreaded Zika virus daily, US Health authorities announced Wednesday as they urged Puerto Rico to strongly consider aerial spraying to prevent mosquitoes from further spreading the virus, the Washington Post reports.
The directive came as the US territory discusses on whether to fumigate with the insecticide Naled. This has triggered protests regarding concerns on the insecticide’s environmental and health impact.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said to the Associated Press that aerial spraying is Puerto Rico’s best defense against the virus, which has been shown to cause microcephaly – a rare birth defect in babies whose mothers were infected with Zika while pregnant, that can lead to brain damage in newborns.
Frieden added that the island does not have an integrated mosquito control program, saying that the increase in Zika cases is due to neglect more than anything else. “If any part of the continental U.S. had the kind of spread of Zika that Puerto Rico has now, they would have sprayed months ago,” he said.
Puerto Rican officials are still debating on spraying, with lawmakers holding hearings amidst public protests. Some health officials have warned regarding the use of Naled, with the health secretary saying that asthmatics and pregnant women should remain indoors should the proposal push through. Puerto Rico has one of the world’s highest asthma rates.
The decision to spray is up to Puerto Rico’s governor, but the project would be conducted and paid for by the United States government.
Puerto Rico reported its first Zika case in May, where a fetus with microcephaly that a woman had turned over to officials tested positive for the virus.
A total of 339 pregnant women have now been diagnosed with Zika on the island, and Frieden cautions that it is only a matter of time before one of them gives birth to a baby with microcephaly.
The US territory has a reported 2,400 Zika cases to date, 44 of which have led to hospitalizations and one death. 16 people have been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre, a temporary paralysis that has been associated with Zika.
The CDC predicts that more than 20% of the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans could be infected with Zika as the virus is expected to peak this summer. Local officials have dismissed the numbers as being blown up.
Frieden said that Zika’s spread is not as apparent as other viruses, because of its asymptomatic nature. Eight out of 10 people show no symptoms, and others only have mild ones. Frieden called it a “silent epidemic,” although data shows that it is clearly rapidly spreading.
Gina McCarthy, administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency, said that Puerto Rico seriously needs to consider aerial spraying, and that it is possible to conduct it safely and effectively.
The EPA said that Naled can irritate people sensitive to chemicals, and might pose some risks to water creatures and wildlife. However, Frieden argued that less than two tablespoons of Naled would be used per acre, and that the insecticide was sprayed last year on 6 million acres in Florida, Miami included. He said it was also used in New York, and there have been no reports of increased asthma attacks.
McCarthy said, “We know how to do this. We are more than willing and anxious to do this.”