Why the war on Zika could be bad for your health

Zika scare Nicaragua

A woman protects her child’s face in Managua, Nicaragua, as health workers fumigate for mosquitoes that carry chikungunya and Zika (Photo: NPR)

When bug spray is worse than the bugs it kills.


Zika, Zika, ZIKA!!! The end is nigh; the first horseman of the apocalypse is here. And, its name is Zika. Every few years, we hear of a health scare that everyone is sure will bring on the Zombie Apocalypse: Swine Flu, Bird Flu and the most recent outbreak of Ebola. The panic is, at times, understandable – the Ebola outbreak alone killed over 11,000 people – but Zika is not a killer. In fact, of all the tropical mosquito-borne diseases, it’s the most harmless. It’s basically Chikungunya light.

So why all the fuss?

The media is claiming that, unlike other diseases, this one is attacking our future, our children. Some health officials suspect a link between Zika-infected pregnant women and microcephaly in newborns. Microcephaly, a disease resulting in abnormally small heads and subsequently brains, can cause severe developmental problems and even death. As someone wanting to start a family one day soon, that is terrifying.


newborn with microcephaly

Photo: Felipe Dana (AP)


But, if we take a step back and look at the facts, we see that there is really no proof of the correlation between Zika and microcephaly. And, the increase in the birth defect is only seen in one of many Zika-effected countries. Colombia has reported over 3,000 cases of Zika in pregnant women and no reported cases of Zika-related microcephaly.

Despite this fact, and understandably erring on the side of caution, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are taking the threat seriously and asking pregnant women and those wanting to get pregnant to hold off or use extreme caution, avoiding mosquito bites at all cost.

Here in Nicaragua, we have Malaria (rare), Dengue (fairly rare), Chikungunya (almost an inevitable part of life) and now Zika (a handful of reports so far). And, in a country of wide open colonial-style houses and not a mosquito screen in sight, avoiding mosquitoes is easier said than done.

So what do  we do?

Both local and international authorities have recommended wearing long sleeves and long pants (um, it’s hotter than Hades here in Nicaragua, so no thank you to that!) and the liberal application of DEET-based mosquito repellent.

DEET is the active chemical found in most bug repellents and is indisputably effective in keeping you mosquito free. But, it is also so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says you should wash it off your skin when you come indoors. There are debates on whether or not DEET is safe. But, from personal experience, I know people who have had a range of problems after chronic use including lucid dreams, night terrors, insomnia, and there are reports of problems with the central nervous system after long-term use.

Furthermore, as I mentioned, in Nicaragua you are never indoors. Your living room and kitchen are probably open-air and you have no netting on your windows. Even DEET proponents say that it should be used sparingly, so being covered in it 24 hrs a day (the Zika mosquito Aedes aegypti bites in the day and night) is not a good idea.

Here in Nicaragua, and the rest of the tropical belt, the government kindly comes and sprays toxic smoke into every nook and cranny to try to kill the nasty little buggers. They have recently doubled their efforts, spraying twice a month. Now I personally have no idea what they are spraying and was not impressed to wake up to the smell of smoke and chemicals being pumped into the drains outside my house. The mystery smoke snaked under the house and out of the vents in our patio, floating in through my bedroom window and right up my nostrils. I have friends who had to wake up at the crack of dawn, dress their child and leave the house just to avoid exposure to the fumes.


Fumigating in Nicaragua. (Photo: andrew.boddyspargo)

Fumigating in Nicaragua. (Photo: andrew.boddyspargo)


Kill them all at any cost

The battle is just beginning. The Zika scare has now prompted talk of the return of DDT. You heard me right, DDT. The same DDT that the US banned 40 years ago.  And it was banned for good reason. It was proven that once absorbed, it stays in the body for decades, was found in breast milk and can cross placenta to fetuses. DDT has been linked to cancer, nervous system and liver damage, developmental delays and miscarriages in humans and animals. It had, and still has, a detrimental impact on the environment.

So why bring it back?

Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the division of vector-borne diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with The New York Times that concerns about DDT have to be “reconsidered in the public health context.”  .

Let me break this down, we have a mosquito-borne disease that is relatively harmless and only presents symptoms in 1 in 5 people. And, there is no real link between this disease and the occurrence of microcephaly in Brazil (new reports show that of the 4,000+ suspected cases of microcephaly only 270 have been confirmed, and only 6 of those tested positive for Zika – a fact that is not surprising due to the prevalence of the disease in the region).


zika mosquito

Aedes aegypti, the little guy causing all the fuss (Photo: James Gathany (AP))


There is, however, a huge link in the use of DDT and developmental problems in newborns and a slew of problems in adults. There is also a warning on overuse of DEET by pregnant women.

So, why are we being encouraged to do things that we KNOW can harm us, our babies and the environment to combat something we SUSPECT might cause harm? Kind of crazy.


So where does that leave us?

I am not saying to throw caution to the wind. As someone who would like to start a family soon, I would never risk the health of my unborn child, not with microcephaly and not with DEET or DDT.

But, my suggestion is to remain calm and:

– Look into installing mosquito nets (a friend of mine in San Juan del Sur got four customized, wood-framed nets for their house for 1000 cordobas – a little over $35)

– Cover up if the weather allows

– Get rid of standing water

– Sleep with the fan on you to keep the mosquitoes at bay

– Buy DEET free-bug sprays. La Colonia (at least in León) sells a complete line of Bug Bond Deet-Free mosquito repellent products.

I’m in the process of researching homemade repellents, so keep an eye out for that post in the near future.

Everyone has to do what they think is right, but I urge you to look closely at the facts before succumbing to the media hype. Be cautious, watch and wait, but don’t panic just yet. Trump poses a way worse threat to the world than Zika does.


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  1. Amber /

    Great article. It’s all ANyone can think of when i tell THEm I’m MOVINg south. No deet for me. I read lemon and eucalyptus essential oils are good protection and i think even lavender. I think you could just add some into almond oil or another oil.

    • GreenNica /

      Thanks! I know what you mean. I just met someone who wanted to move to Asia to avoid the virus. It was a 23 yr old guy. People need to understand what is really going on before they start to panic. Essential oils are hard to come by here, and if you do find them, they’re expensive. So, bring them with you and let me know if you find a winning combination. The Bug Bond they sell here is mostly geranium and rosemary oil. It works great for me, but not my boyfriend. They say different blends work for different people. I’ve heard good things as well about eucalyptus, lemon, lavender, sage and thyme oils.

  2. Other Victims of Zika | Mariposa Spanish School's Weblog /

    […] Here at La Mariposa we do not allow fumigations. We rely on natural predators, keeping the place clean of trash and stagnant water and regular applications around the gardens of lime, a strong repellent. The number of cases of chikungunya last year (carried by the same mosquito as zika) was the same as in the community in general. We also have a natural repellent (alcohol, oil and cloves) which is very good though most people prefer to use DEET (see […]

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