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Soldiers In Brazil Battle Mosquitoes That Could Be Spreading Zika


Nowhere has the Zika virus hit harder than Brazil, and the country has declared war on the mosquito that spreads it. Brazil says there are now 4,314 suspected and confirmed cases of microcephaly. That's the condition where infants are born with unusually small heads and often related developmental delays. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Rio de Janeiro. She's on the line to tell us a little bit more about what Brazil's government has been doing to deal with Zika. Hey, Lourdes.


KELLY: I'm well, thanks. So worried is Brazil's government?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Extremely worried, Mary Louise. It's unclear how many people have contracted the Zika virus here because testing is so hard, but Brazil's believed to have over half-a-million people at least who were infected with the virus at some point in the last year-and-a-half. It's a huge deal.

KELLY: Wow. And we said Brazil has declared war. I gather, over the weekend, the armed forces were actually sent out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, 220,000 soldiers from the Army, also members of the Navy, Air Force were out in over 350 cities in the country. I joined some of them here in Rio de Janeiro.

The armed forces took to many of Brazil's streets for a day, an unprecedented display in a country where the military is highly regarded, but often not very visible. They were handing out flyers on street corners or in cafes and even in people's homes with a simple message - clean up your personal space. First Lt. Anderson Luciano with the Navy was wearing his dress whites, along with 15 other men

ANDERSON LUCIANO: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We're doing this to raise awareness of the fight against the aedis egypti," he tells me. The aedis egypti mosquito infects people with not only Zika but dengue and chikungunya. It's mostly an urban pest that bites during the day and breeds in standing water. The eggs can survive for months in something as small as a bottle cap. The flyers that the armed forced are handing out remind people how to safeguard their homes so there are no places for water to accumulate. While I'm talking with the Navy men, a car pulls up with two women inside.

ANA MARTINS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ana Martins is 45 years old. Cristiane Silva is 43.

MARTINS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ana says, "we do our part. I think a lot of people are aware of the problem, but what about the garbage on the streets," she asks. "There are places that are filled with trash that are breeding grounds for the mosquitoes," she says. It's not just about educating the public, Cristiane adds, the military should be helping to clean up the streets. It's a common sentiment in Brazil, where the government has been accused of doing too little too late in the fight against the aedis egypti mosquito. Spotty garbage collection in poor neighborhoods has come under particular fire, especially since many of the women who have had microcephalic infants from poor communities. Personal responsibilities, say critics, can only go so far if public services are lacking. But this weekend's event was not only about sending a message to Brazilians that the government is getting serious about dealing with public health crisis.


PRES DILMA ROUSSEFF: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Dilma Rousseff, sporting a shirt with the logo Zika-Zero on it, also had a message for the international community.


ROUSSEFF: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It's here in Rio de Janeiro," she says, "that the Olympics will take place. We are focused very much on eradicating the mosquito here while we don't have a vaccine against Zika. Some cities will take priority, and one of those is Rio." She added that she does believe Zika threatens the Olympic games.

KELLY: Lourdes reporting there from Rio, and Lourdes is still on the line with us. Tell us - I mean, we just heard there Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff saying the spread of Zika will not derail the Olympics. You live in Rio. Do people believe that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think people are extremely worried here that Zika will do just that. You know, some athletes, especially female, have expressed concern about traveling to Brazil for the games. Clearly fans are worried, as well. There have even been isolated calls to move the games altogether. Now, none of this has gained traction yet, but it's obviously something Brazil wants to get ahead of. And that's why, I think, Dilma Rousseff kicked of the Zika-Zero campaign, as it's called here in Rio. The message is this is a priority and, as she says, we will win this war against the mosquitoes. She wants the message to not only be for Brazilians, but clearly the international community as well.

KELLY: OK. Thanks so much, Lourdes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sundayand one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcastUp First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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