El Salvador launches fight against Zika

By Katy Watson
BBC Mexico and Central America reporter, El Salvador

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The Zikabusters are out in force.

The loud buzz of the "motobombas", or the fumigation machines, are moving through the neighbourhood of Lomas de Versalles in San Salvador as municipal workers wearing masks, jump suits and hard hats go from house to house, knocking on the doors to drive out the mosquitoes.

"Some people are calling it the new Ebola," says San Salvador's Mayor Nayib Bukele. "I don't know if it's the new Ebola but we don't want to find out."

In this small nation of just six million people, there have been more than 6,000 suspected cases since Zika was confirmed in the country at the end of November. Around 2,500 more suspected cases have come to light since the beginning of the year alone.

Enterprising traders at the city's central market are taking advantage of the growing concern. There are stalls full of colourful mosquito nets going for $5 each. Or for $3 you can buy a colourful electric mosquito-zapping tennis racket that is being peddled as an anti-Zika device. As the cars pass through downtown San Salvador, drivers wind down their windows and make a quick purchase.

With new Zika cases rising - and more quickly - every week, the government's having to step up its efforts.

The health ministry recently warned women they should hold off from getting pregnant this year and next. When pressed, Deputy Health Minister Dr Eduardo Espinoza said he only meant people should hold off for this year.

"We are giving a recommendation, it's not prohibition or a birth control measure," says Dr Espinoza. "These children are going to need neurological help for the rest of their lives. They will have to get support and they will change the family dynamic. Nobody wants a child with incapacities so we are recommending people to reflect."

It is a position though that has received huge criticism from feminist groups.

"To prevent pregnancies in situations of risk, this isn't a bad option but it's not enough," says Morena Herrera, president of the Citizen's Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion. "We don't think it is taking into account the realities of women in El Salvador."

One of the concerns she has is that it does not hold men responsible too.

"Women don't get pregnant alone," she says. "The access to information and to contraceptives, even though not illegal, is not totally open and many women don't have enough information. And there are many pregnancies that are a result of violent rape - pregnancies imposed on women where they aren't making their own decisions."

More on the Zika virus:

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Zika virus has been linked to infant microcephaly, which can hamper brain development

El Salvador is a very conservative society. Abortion is banned under any circumstances and can lead to decades in jail. The Catholic Church says the government's approach is misguided.

"The government is warning about a risk and proposing that women don't get pregnant so they don't run the risk of having children with physical problems but are they doing enough about the Zika-carrying mosquito?" says Father Luis Ayala of the Catholic Church.

"The government doesn't have the capacity on its own to combat this problem. We have to design an institutional campaign and then with the key powers from civil society like the Catholic Church who could play a key role though parishes, warn people to be alert about stagnant water and I think that way we can avoid this mosquito from reproducing."

But Father Ayala does not offer up much support for women who find themselves pregnant and concerned about the potential impact of Zika on their unborn baby.

"In light of the risk, a husband or wife can decide not to get pregnant because if they do and get bitten and realise they might have damaged the foetus, well, they have to avoid the bigger evil, which is abortion."

At the National Women's Hospital in San Salvador, leaflets are being handed out and nurses give talks to pregnant women waiting for their appointment; tips like organising neighbourhood cleaning campaigns, putting lids on water that is being stored and changing water regularly.

But there is little sign of panic among medical staff. This is a country well used to viruses like Dengue fever and chikungunya that have become rife in this part of the world. I heard one nurse tell patients that Zika is the "fashionable" virus right now.

Pregnant women here are especially concerned.

"We have to recognise we are a poor country, that resources are very limited and that the few resources that there are don't go to those who need it," says Guadalupe Arquilla who is 13 weeks pregnant and waiting for her appointment.

"Just look, nobody here has come out of their consultation with a protection kit - where's the concern? Chatting to people won't get rid of the mosquitoes."

And it will not get rid of the worry either. So far there have been no cases of babies born with microcephaly here in El Salvador after their mothers have contracted Zika. But there are around 100 pregnant women who are under observation. They will not know the real impact of the virus until their babies are born in a few months' time.

What is the Zika virus:

  • Spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also carries dengue fever and yellow fever
  • First discovered in Africa in the 1940s but is now spreading in Latin America
  • Scientists say there is growing evidence of a link to microcephaly, that leads to babies being born with small heads
  • Can lead to fever and a rash but most people show no symptoms, and there is no known cure
  • Only way to fight Zika is to clear stagnant water where mosquitoes breed, and protect against mosquito bites