Puerto Rico rejects insecticide to fight Zika amid protests

James Gathany / CDC / MGN

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Puerto Rico’s governor announced Friday that he will not authorize aerial spraying with the insecticide naled to fight an increase in Zika cases as U.S. health officials have urged.

Instead, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said he will support the spraying of Bti, an organic larvicide. He said it should be sufficient to fight the mosquito-borne virus along with other ongoing efforts, but hoped no child would be “born with congenital defects because of the decision I took.”

Zika can cause microcephaly, a rare defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and brain damage.

Puerto Ricans in recent weeks have organized several protests against the use of naled, raising concerns about its potential effects on people and wildlife. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said Puerto Rico lacked an integrated mosquito control program as it fights what it called a silent epidemic. Eight of 10 people show no symptoms of Zika, which can cause symptoms including fever, rash and headache.

So far, Puerto Rico has 5,582 Zika cases and is seeing a 20-30 percent weekly increase in those cases, said Health Secretary Ana Rius.

There are 662 pregnant women infected with Zika, and up to 80 of them have given birth, all to healthy babies, she said. However, Puerto Rico in May reported the first microcephaly case acquired on U.S. soil. It involved a fetus that a woman turned over to U.S. health officials who found it tested positive for Zika.

One death has been reported and 65 people have been hospitalized in connection with the virus. There are also 21 cases of a temporary paralysis condition known as Guillain-Barre that has been linked to Zika.

“This illness is not a joke,” said Rius, who originally recommended spraying with naled but later withdrew her support.

Garcia’s announcement follows a rift between his administration and the CDC, which angered the local government officials by sending a shipment of naled to the U.S. territory this week without notifying them.

Garcia said he ordered the shipment returned.

“This is our island,” he said in a nod to angry Puerto Ricans who accused the federal government of threatening the island’s political autonomy.

The CDC addressed that issue in a Friday statement.

“We regret that the shipment of naled arrived in Puerto Rico without appropriate levels of awareness,” the agency said. “We moved too quickly in our urgency to do all that we could to be responsive and prepared in the event officials in Puerto Rico decided to use naled.”

The CDC said it respected the governor’s decision to not use naled, but a spokeswoman said the agency did not immediately have an answer to whether it believed the larvicide Bti would be sufficient to fight Zika in Puerto Rico.

The agency has estimated that more than 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people could be infected with Zika in an outbreak expected to peak by this summer. Local health officials have dismissed that number as exaggerated.

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