Boring Fix for Zika

Feb. 24, 2016, 5:35 p.m.

Humans crave distraction. We demand newness in our daily lives, equate familiarity with boredom, and flock to the latest wonders of technology simply because of their novelty.

So when a dangerous threat like the mosquito-borne Zika virus suddenly emerges, it’s human nature to look for quick-fix innovations that fit our excitable world view. But by placing too much faith in undeveloped vaccines and unproven genetic-modification schemes that promise to “edit nature” in humanity’s best interest, we’re in danger of devaluing the most effective and least glamorous ways of fighting disease.

To control the mosquito that carries Zika, first get rid of the places in tropical climates where it breeds. The aedes aegypti species is highly adaptable and opportunistic, crosses the world with ease and thrives in crowded cities – particularly in unsanitary shanty-towns. So it is a formidable foe, except for one obvious weakness that can be readily exploited: It needs pools and containers of water in which to reproduce.

Of course, it may eventually become possible to alter the genetic code of captive male mosquitoes and make them produce sterile offspring on a large enough scale to eradicate Zika. That would be much sexier, scientifically speaking, and wouldn’t force awkward discussions on the relationship between poverty and disease.

But meanwhile, the risks in the real world can be reduced by implementing a tried and tested preventative measure: Eliminate sources of standing water, from plates under flowerpots, discarded plastic cups, uncollected garbage bag and puddles in constructions sites to eavestroughs, septic tanks and used tires.

Nothing could be less exciting or more unglamorous. But the everyday solutions of public health aren’t designed to impress or entertain the rest of us – all that matters is whether they work for the people who are most affected.

Any widespread eradication project requires a certain amount of persuasion and even coercion, even if all that’s being done is asking people to get rid of water that is harming them. Governments must resist the urge to be heavy-handed in their anti-Zika measures, simply because trust and co-operation are essential for disease-fighting to succeed at the dull, everyday ground level.

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