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Disease-spreading mosquitoes could soon overrun Puerto Rico

“The mosquito population is already coming out, and it’s making life impossible,” said a former Navy entomologist in San Juan.

by Christina Sterbenz
Sep 29 2017, 12:50pm

When back-to-back hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico this month, they left the entire island without electricity and about half of it without running water. Now, as residents use buckets, bottles, and whatever they can find to gather rainwater for bathing and even drinking, they’re creating the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread debilitating diseases.

“The mosquito population is already coming out, and it’s making life impossible,” said Manuel Lluberas, a former Navy entomologist and executive director for public health for HD Hudson, a manufacturer of commercial spraying systems. Lluberas lives in Carolina, Puerto Rico, but he spoke with VICE News from a hotel in San Juan, one of the only places on the island with power. His house doesn’t have running water either.

Lluberas predicted at least a dozen mosquitoes would hit someone walking outside — and that’s a conservative estimate. Hurricane Maria dumped more than two feet of rain on the island in just under 24 hours, turning dumpsters and other large receptacles into incubation chambers for mosquitoes that spread severe flu-like diseases, such as dengue fever and chikungunya, as well as Zika. The flooding also left standing water, where mosquitoes can also breed, strewn across the devastated island.

READ: Red tape is keeping aid from reaching desperate Puerto Ricans

After natural disasters, organizations like FEMA and even the military often send their entomologists to help with mosquito-control efforts. But at this point, no one appears to have a plan to address the situation.

U.S. Northern Command, tasked with coordinating the military’s relief efforts after the hurricanes, has no mosquito control efforts currently underway in Puerto Rico, public affairs officer Lt. Commander Joe Nawrocki told VICE News, although he expects those orders to come down in the next week or so.

The CDC doesn’t have any plans yet either, according to a spokesperson, who told VICE News to contact the Puerto Rican government directly. “During an emergency response, federal, state, and local priority is on life-saving missions,” the CDC spokesperson said. “Once the immediate threat has been mitigated, authorities will turn to the discussion of mosquito control.”

The Puerto Rican Department of Health didn’t respond to a request for comment. FEMA referred VICE News to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which didn’t respond to a request for comment either.

Taking over

The exploding mosquito problem staring down Puerto Rico stems from the island’s negligible mosquito control infrastructure. There hasn’t been a meaningful mosquito census since the 1950s, according to Lluberas. Instead, the government relies on private pest control companies, which usually aren’t properly trained. “It’s like telling a gynecologist to go check somebody’s prostate,” Lluberas said. “It just doesn’t work.”

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, in particular, which breeds in containers, poses a significant threat to Puerto Rico after the hurricanes, entomologists told VICE News. Aegypti spread chikungunya and dengue, which without proper treatment, can be fatal. And although chikungunya rarely is, it’s referred to as the “breaking bone” disease because of the mind-numbing pain.

“Aedes aegypti will take over Puerto Rico,” Lluberas said. “It’s a matter of weeks before we start seeing problems.”

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2016 file photo of aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen in a mosquito cage at a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File)

On their own, mosquitoes don’t cause disease; they’re known as vectors, or more colloquially, carriers. Mosquitoes pick up the disease from infected blood and spread it through their bites. But dengue fever has already plagued Puerto Rico for decades, and starting in 2014, cases of chikungunya also appeared in alarming numbers. Because these diseases already exist in Puerto Rico’s population, more mosquitoes means a higher risk of spreading them. And while Puerto Rico declared its Zika outbreak over in June, the CDC has still maintained its travel warning.

“There’s literally almost no indoors”

A lack of natural barriers, like air-conditioning and screens, in Puerto Rico after the storms also increases the likelihood people will come into contact with mosquitoes and potentially, the diseases they carry. “The situation in Puerto Rico can only be described as the land of living dead without the zombies,” Lluberas said. “There’s literally almost no indoors.”

A 2008 study from the University of Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, for example, found that Louisiana counties affected by Hurricane Katrina saw a two-fold increase in cases of West Nile, likely because of people’s increased contact with mosquitoes. “Tens of thousands” of people, the study noted, were living in damaged homes or waiting outside for days to be evacuated.

Aside from dengue, chikungunya, and Zika, other mosquito-borne diseases could crop up in Puerto Rico now. When the U.S. territory opened its arms to refugees fleeing Caribbean islands leveled in Hurricane Irma’s wake, they could have brought Malaria and West Nile with them, according to Joe Conlon, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, a professional organization with over 700 entomologists that often advises the CDC.

Even relief-workers and eventual tourists could bring mosquito-borne disease to Puerto Rico, which the soon-to-skyrocket mosquito population would spread more quickly than usual. That’s a lesser worry than the diseases already present on the island though.

“The mosquito population is already coming out, and it’s making life impossible.”

While Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which also spread West Nile, are the main concern, a different species, Anopheles, carries the parasite that causes Malaria. Anopheles breed in standing water, like puddles, rather than in containers. But Hurricanes Irma and Maria left Puerto Rico with more than enough of those, too.

Like Florida and other places on the mainland, mosquito abatement in Puerto Rico has faced opposition from people wary of the toxicity and environmental effects. In July of last year, for example, Puerto Rico’s governor refused to authorize aerial spraying with insecticides to fight Zika after weeks of protests in San Juan. The resistance frustrates entomologists and mosquito-borne disease specialists, who repeatedly explained that federal law dictates how much insecticide they can spray — which the EPA has determined poses “minimal risk” — and where they can spray it.

“We don’t go out hunting squirrels with atomic weapons,” Conlon said. “We know what to use and how much to use.”

Cover image: People affected by Hurricane Maria bathe in water piped from a creek in the mountains, in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

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