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Zika Virus Spreads More Rapidly In Puerto Rico


In Puerto Rico, the CDC estimates that thousands of people are becoming infected with Zika every day. That includes up to 50 pregnant women per day. New York Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil Jr. just spent a week in Puerto Rico. He says people there aren't doing enough to protect themselves because they think the threat has been exaggerated. And he says trust in the CDC is low, especially after it endorsed the spring of an insecticide called Naled.

DONALD MCNEIL JR: Naled's an organophosphate. It's, you know, somewhere in the middle of toxicity for sprays. It's highly toxic to bees, to birds and to freshwater fish. And the Puerto Ricans, who have a long and a legitimate history of grievances against the United States government for things like testing agent orange in the jungles of Puerto Rico before it used it in Vietnam and a longstanding policy of sterilizing Puerto Rican women who'd had more than two or three kids, were extremely suspicious of this.

And since the CDC couldn't say anything other than, we hope it will work, and since it hadn't worked in Puerto Rico in 1987 when they used it to fight dengue outbreak there, people rebelled. They didn't want it.

So hundreds marched. They wore bee masks and gas masks and said, this is, you know, the U.S. experimenting on us again. And also there's a lot of sensitivity because the United States government just declared that it's going to take over Puerto Rico's economy and create a fiscal control board to run their finances. So they do feel like an oppressed colony with a history of bad behavior on the part of the U.S. government.

MCNEIL JR: So a public backlash against aerial spraying - what are some of the other mitigation efforts that you say failed?

MCNEIL JR: Well, they announced in February this big program to fight the mosquito, and it was going to be, go into cemeteries and get rid of all standing water in cemeteries and collect millions of old tires on the island and put them someplace where they couldn't collect water and breed mosquitoes. They were going to try to put screens on the windows of all the schools where high school girls went to school. They were going to go to the house of every pregnant woman and try to put screens on that and do insecticide fogging and larvicides.

But it was done municipality by municipality. There's 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico. It worked in some cases, but overall it didn't work at all. And now they're seeing 2 percent of all the donated blood in Puerto Rico comes from somebody who's been infected in the last 10 days.

CORNISH: Two percent of all the donated blood in Puerto Rico - so people who are donating blood they think for a good cause - their blood is unusable.


CORNISH: The CDC has said that Puerto Rico essentially has no integrated mosquito control program at this point. From what you saw, is that the case, or have there have been steps taken, say, in the last week or two?

MCNEIL JR: Well, I was there one week ago, and I would say that there was not an integrated pest-control program. First of all, it's broken up into 78 municipalities, and there's a lot of infighting and a lot of finger pointing. And you know, just look at the facts on the ground. The mosquito is rampant.

The one thing that's likely to keep the problem down is that women are not getting pregnant nearly as often as they were before. That seems to be having an effect even though it's not CDC policy to tell people not to get pregnant. But they are actually in fact helping people not get pregnant by bringing a lot of birth control to the island, so it's having an effect.

CORNISH: Looking ahead, do you get a sense that the government can recover and somehow get on top of this epidemic?

MCNEIL JR: Well, everybody's going to have to start acting like grownups and get over their problems and get things coordinated, and I'm not confident that that's going to happen. That doesn't - it - right now they're in the middle of a real blood feud with the governor calling - accusing the CDC of blackmail and the CDC saying that things are not going right in Puerto Rico at all and they're not taking the disease serious enough.

So I don't see anything that can be done in time to make a big difference. I mean this epidemic is likely to keep spreading there until October when cold weather arrives. And if they can get coordinated before then, maybe they can make a difference, but I'm not seeing it right now.

CORNISH: Donald McNeil Jr., thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCNEIL JR: Thank you very much for inviting me.

CORNISH: Donald McNeil Jr. is a health and science reporter for The New York Times and author of the book "Zika: The Emerging Epidemic." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.