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Mosquito-Eating Fish Can Help Fight the Zika Virus

In El Salvador, workers are distributing the fish for local restaurants, schools, and families to put in their standing water barrels.

by Wyatt Marshall
Mar 7 2016, 9:00pm

The Zika virus continues to spread throughout South and Central America, and the mosquito-borne virus is proving difficult to eradicate. The Aedes aegypti is a stubborn little bloodsucker—and fumigation, mosquito nets, and repellent go only so far when the bug can reproduce en masse in even just a tiny bit of standing water.

But a new force is joining the fight that could help in the ongoing struggle to contain the virus. Healthcare workers are introducing small sambo fish, which are native to El Salvador and love to feast on mosquito larvae, to the sinks and drinking-water tanks in homes in El Salvador.

In areas of Latin America with intermittent rain, it's common for homes to use drum storage tanks to store drinking water. These barrels are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos, and family water supplies can quickly become welcome habitats for the pesky bloodsuckers. But plop a couple of sambo fish in there and they will happily eat up the larvae.

One aid group trying to fight Zika with fish, Operation Blessing, has worked with the government of El Salvador to distribute fish in restaurants, schools, and homes that have standing water barrels. In Mexico, they are using the local gambuja fish instead of sambo, and they have approached the Honduran government to arrange a similar setup.

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Those who think the fish show promise in combating Zika says they are well situated to deal with some of A. aegypti's quirks that make them so hard to eradicate in the first place. For instance, bed netting is not particularly effective because this variety of mosquito sleeps at night and is most active at dusk and dawn, according to Christian Today.

Fish have been used to stop the spread of mosquito-borne viruses in the past. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, fish were introduced to flooded swimming pools, which had become ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes that could carry the West Nile Virus.

The Zika virus has been linked to a massive spike in cases of microcephaly, a condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and subsequently faces a life of seizures, development delay, and intellectual disability, as well as hearing, vision, and balance problems and more. New research seems to strengthen the connection, suggesting that Zika may target developing brain cells.

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In adults, symptoms can be mild and often go unnoticed, but also include fever, rashes, and joint pain. Adults rarely die from Zika, which can also be sexually transmitted. Despite that, American spring breakers aren't going to let Zika ruin a good time and have so far been undeterred by what the World Health Organization is calling a "public health emergency of international concern."

If the fish proponents are right, and these unassuming fish actually help defeat Zika, they will have pulled off a real coup. Thousands of babies and perhaps even the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio could be saved by turning the root of the problem into literal fish food.

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