Florida’s un­der­funded fight against Zika

Lo­cal mos­quito-con­trol ef­forts can’t keep up with the bugs “What you need now is boots on the ground”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Mar­garet Newkirk

Mos­quito sea­son has ar­rived in South Florida, and that means the Zika virus is com­ing, too. Some ar­eas are pre­pared. The mos­quito-con­trol district for Fort My­ers, on the Gulf Coast, has a $17 mil­lion bud­get funded by a lo­cal tax that pays for trucks, labs, and Huey he­li­copters equipped

to fly pes­ti­cide-spray­ing mis­sions.

Chalmers Vasquez can only dream of those re­sources. He’s the op­er­a­tions man­ager for Mi­ami-Dade County’s mos­quito-con­trol district, which has a $1.6 mil­lion an­nual bud­get to cover Florida’s most pop­u­lous re­gion.

Mi­ami-Dade is ground zero for Zika in the con­ti­nen­tal U.S., with 46 cases re­ported as of May 25. All were ac­quired by peo­ple trav­el­ing abroad or through sex­ual con­tact with such peo­ple. Vasquez wor­ries that may change as the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion of Aedes ae­gypti, the mos­quito that car­ries the virus, explodes. “What you need in this par­tic­u­lar situation is peo­ple,” he says. “What you need now is boots on the ground.”

Five months ago, Pres­i­dent Obama asked Con­gress to al­lo­cate $1.9 bil­lion to fight the virus, but Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have so far failed to de­liver. Some of the White House re­quest was ded­i­cated to as­sis­tance for Puerto Rico and coun­tries where Zika has al­ready reached epi­demic lev­els, as well as grants for vac­cine re­search. But it also in­cluded $453 mil­lion for do­mes­tic mos­quito-fight­ing ef­forts— money Vasquez says is cru­cial to stop­ping Zika. “At this point that’s the only way to con­trol the vec­tor of the dis­ease,” he says.

Vasquez, an en­to­mol­o­gist, is in his fifth year over­see­ing mos­quito con­trol in Mi­ami-Dade. He started as an ex­ter­mi­na­tor 25 years ago. “I al­ways liked bugs,” Vasquez says. His truck is dec­o­rated with a de­cal of a mos­quito and the words “Bite Me.”

In 2014 he man­aged the re­sponse to dengue and chikun­gunya, trop­i­cal dis­eases also borne by A. ae­gypti. Now it’s all Zika all the time. Calls from res­i­dents rose in the last week of May to 50 a day, from six. Vasquez has be­gun join­ing his team of 12 in­spec­tors in the field, set­ting out traps and vis­it­ing homes and busi­nesses where mos­qui­toes have been spot­ted.

On one call, Vasquez paid a visit to Eda Harris, a South Mi­ami

home­owner whose hus­band had re­ported stand­ing wa­ter in the swim­ming pool of a va­cant home next door. Vasquez found no A. ae­gypti un­til he looked in Harris’s yard, where lar­vae were grow­ing in a clay pot the size of a Dixie cup and in a saucer sit­ting un­der a planter. Cit­ing a mu­nic­i­pal ban on in­sec­ti­cide use, Harris stopped Vasquez from spray­ing and called the mayor, Philip Stod­dard, a Florida In­ter­na­tional Uni­ver­sity bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor who helped en­act the ban. When the mayor showed up, Vasquez ex­plained the state’s health emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion su­per­sedes city or­di­nances but agreed to check with the county’s at­tor­ney be­fore spray­ing. Says Vasquez: “This could be a big prob­lem.”

The bot­tom line Mi­ami-Dade, which has the most Zika in­fec­tions in the con­ti­nen­tal U.S., al­lots only $1.6 mil­lion a year for mos­quito con­trol.

A Mi­ami-Dade mos­quito in­spec­tor sprays pes­ti­cide on May 26

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