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As tens of thousands of people arrive in Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympics this week, millions of mosquitoes, some perhaps carrying the Zika virus, await them.
But what may be the best repellent around is also the hardest to get.
It comes in a greenish-gray tube. It is a sticky gel, but it has a mild, pleasant odor, which is kind of floral. It is simply called Repelente Gel, and it is produced by and for the Brazilian Army.
A military lab makes it, so good luck getting your hands on it.
The occasional civilian who has managed to find it has often ended up swearing by it. I know. I am one of them. I encountered this repellent in Haiti while on assignment for The New York Times in 2010, covering the cholera epidemic and a presidential election.
Brazilian soldiers were a large part of the United Nations peacekeeping force helping to police Haiti. One afternoon, I rode along with them on a patrol. As I got on a truck, a smiling soldier handed me a tube of his repellent and in English said, “For you, for the mosquitoes.”
I was intrigued at what a soldier from an Amazonian country would use. The stuff I had always picked up at the drugstore had never seemed to be quite enough.
So I slathered it on. No allergic reaction, good. Better yet, even hours later, no mosquitoes — at least noticeably fewer. No buzzing in my ears. No patchwork of bites.
I strained to conserve this miracle gel for the remaining days of that trip and subsequent ones, despairing when it ran out. (Hey, guys, how about another ride-along?)
I was not alone. Simon Romero, my colleague in The Times’s Rio de Janeiro bureau, swears by the stuff, too, having used it on trips with the military into the Amazon jungle.
So what’s the secret? And more important, where can you get it?
Well, the Brazilian Army prefers to keep its product for soldiers and is circumspect about saying exactly what makes it so effective.
The main ingredient listed is diethyltoluamide, commonly known as DEET, which scientists say is among the most effective chemicals against mosquitoes.
It is found in mosquito repellents available the world over, but the army’s public relations office did not answer questions about how much DEET was in it (other than to say the amount was “similar” to that found in commercially available products) or whether it contained other antimosquito ingredients. (It did say the repellent worked on “a broad spectrum of insects.”)
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The office said the repellent had been developed over the course of 20 years and “was tested in the laboratory and the field by the land forces across the whole country.”
The office added, “It showed excellent results in areas of major insect pest infestation, such as Amazon, Pantanal, Angola and Haiti.”
There is no “plan for external commercialization,” the statement said.
Word is getting around, though, about how good it is.
The Brazilian Health Ministry wanted the gel, too. In December, the ministry asked the army for it, to give to pregnant women as part of anti-Zika measures, but negotiations apparently stalled. The army had expressed concern, according to news reports, that its lab could not produce the repellent on the scale that the health ministry wanted.
“The army and all the country’s laboratories which we have consulted are not prepared to produce the volume of repellent we need immediately,” the health minister, Marcelo Castro, said in January.
There is some hope for Olympic visitors.
To protect the Games, Brazilian officials have said, they have deployed more than 85,000 soldiers and police officers to Rio de Janeiro. You never know what a friendly soldier might share.
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