From Alabama to Colombia: Love in the time of Zika

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From Alabama to Colombia: Love in the time of Zika

Mosquitos, for the first time in the memory of many people here, have descended on Bogotá.

They arrived with a wave of unusually warm weather—record highs some days—that settled over the city in December and January. Few complained, at first. The sultry temperatures brought golden days, perfect for picnics and strolls through gardens in riot with huge red roses.

What passes for a heat wave in Bogotá, a city a mile and one-half in altitude, might seem laughable in the United States. Normal daily highs of 70 degrees soared to 80. Bogotanos actually broke a sweat riding bicycles to work and hauling wheelbarrows to erect the six-story apartment buildings rising from one end of the city to the other.

Eventually, though, the hot weather caused drought. Patches of grass turned brown, and ambitious little streams that spill down into the city from the eastern Andes dried to trickles.

Things got worse. Wildfires scorched parts of the country, some of the blazes leaping treetop to treetop in high winds. One fire, in the hills over Bogotá, created so much smoke that downtown universities suspended classes and sent kids home.

The heat brought the mosquitos too, breezing through open windows into houses and apartments. With its temperate climate, Bogotá rarely has need for air conditioning, so most houses don’t have it. Folks simply open windows to stay cool if the mid-afternoon grow uncomfortably warm. Mosquitos can happily enter homes and hide in curtains and cozy corners until after sundown … and feeding time.

Like many, I found my sleep increasingly interrupted by little dental drills. I recognized the sounds of mosquitoes, of course. I lived for seven years on or near Mobile Bay, a virtual nature preserve for mosquitos, some of them (at least in my fevered memory) big enough to hunt with a shotgun. The needle-nosed night visitors in Bogotá made me remember Mobile and Magnolia Springs … and not in a good way.

Those of us who have lived with mosquitos in the U.S. consider them simply a pest. We have modern repellants and medicines. These days, no one expects a mosquito-borne outbreak of yellow fever to curtail the life of an entire town, the way the Yellow Jack forced the evacuation of Blakeley, Alabama, before the Civil War. Blakeley remains a ghost town to this day, a cenotaph reminding us of the power of diseases carried on tiny wings.

Here in Colombia, mosquitoes can kill too. One species, Anopheles, carries malaria, a disease that has famously wiped out and wasted millions of people through the course of human history. Malaria may be responsible for the slowed development of entire civilizations.

Another type of mosquito here in the Tropic of Cancer, Aedes aegypti, carries dengue and chikungunya, two feared fevers. (Dengue can kill.) These diseases strike people in some parts of Colombia, and health officials constantly monitor outbreaks. Bogotá, previously free of mosquitos, has been largely spared.

But now, we have mosquitos … and a nasty unforeseen worry.

A new illness, Zika, has spread to Colombia from jungle origins in Brazil. That same Aedes aegypti mosquito, apparently a Pandora’s Box for fevers, carries Zika—dengue, chikungunya, and Zika, the trifecta. Colombia reports the second-highest number of Zika cases in the world … and one feels a growing apprehension among 11 million people in urban Bogotá.

South of this city, in the vast grassy plains where wild horses run, cattle graze, and vaqueros, or cowboys, wrangle, people make sure they’re completely covered if they sleep outdoors. Vampire bats frequent that part of Colombia. They feed on anything warm with blood inside.

A fever-bearing mosquito is worse. The bloodthirsty insect needs only the tiniest crack in a window frame, under a door, or between two panes of glass to invade a bedroom. Once she has fed on blood, the female can lay thousands of eggs in a piddle of a puddle. These hatch into nymphs, colorfully known as wiggletails in the South of the USA. Nymphs metamorphose into flying mosquitos.

Zika’s physical symptoms don’t look so bad on paper—fever, rash, joint pain, maybe inflammation around the eyes. The fever lasts a few days, then passes. It’s not a recurrent illness like malaria, which wracks victims at random periods for a lifetime.

A virus, Zika spreads like dengue and chikungunya. The blood of an infected person can be extracted by a mosquito … and that mosquito, when it feeds on another person, can then transmit the disease to its innocent victim. If that person happens to be pregnant, a terrible thing can happen to the baby.

In Brazil, as medical professionals watched in surprise, hundreds of newborns entered the world with microcephaly—smaller-than-normal heads. The small heads, of course, held brains that failed to be fully developed. Scientists have established a direct link from Zika to microcephaly. Children with microcephaly for any reason can have profound developmental issues. There’s generally not a treatment, and kids without early intervention, like speech and occupational therapies, can require care their entire lives.

Before political correctness—clearly in this instance a good thing—people with microcephaly endured being commonly referred to as ‘pinheads.’ A 1960s underground comic book called Zippy featured Zippy the Pinhead, an unfortunate victim of microcephaly, as its hero.

Some 4,000 babies have been born in Brazil with microcephaly since last October, a 20-fold increase since Zika arrived. The Brazilian government estimates that 500,000 to 1,500,000 people carry Zika virus in that country alone. Colombia has seen micro-clusters of Zika cases and microcephaly. The growing numbers of babies with undeveloped brains and heads brings to mind the sad wave of terrible birth defects caused by thalidomide, a drug administered to women for morning sickness in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Needless to say, repellants and screen wire and mosquito netting sell briskly.

Still, life goes on. As I write this, the people of Barranquilla, a lively city on the Caribbean coast, pour into the streets each night in colorful parades and revelries to celebrate Barranquilla Carnival, Colombia’s largest and most important folklore festival. The mosquitoes, no doubt, arrive hungry and leave glutted.

Many babies born in mosquito-infested areas of Colombia in coming years will face developmental issues and the stigma still attached to microcephaly unless authorities can find some way to stop mosquitos from spreading the virus … or stop people from having sex. That’s the latest startling news about Zika. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus can also spread through sexual contact. It appears that Zika doesn’t need a mosquito as a middleman.

Here on our mountain plateau, bogotanos frown at such news and shut the windows. For the first time in memory, clouds of mosquitos cruise our city. The insects have nightly access to the most abundant blood supply in all of Colombia, and one of the largest in South America.

What will it mean if Zika reaches our city high in the Andes? Dengue, chikungunya—they rattle the bones and boil the blood, then pass. Zika’s different. Zika brings the nightmarish vision of a generation of infants in incubators with tiny heads, tiny brains … and even tinier prospects for a fulfilled life.

Photo: coniferconifer, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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