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Simon Romero is The Times’s Brazil bureau chief.
RECIFE, Brazil — Rushing to catch my flight to this city in northeast Brazil, I grabbed some notebooks, a few pens, a recorder, printouts of scientific studies on the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and I tossed clothes for a week into my bag.
But when I landed after midnight in late January, I discovered something crucial was missing: I had just flown into the Brazilian city hit hardest by Zika without any mosquito repellent.
It’s often this way on a breaking story: a frenzied combination of interviewing, writing, arranging the next day’s meetings, hopping on planes and driving to the place where news is developing. The crisis around the Zika virus, which Brazilian researchers link to a surge of birth defects in babies, is no different.
When I awoke on my first day in Recife, there was no time to stop at a pharmacy. I had arranged an early morning meeting with women whose infants have abnormally small heads and brain damage, a condition called microcephaly, at the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital, a once-polished institution that is now in a state of elegant decay.
It was clear, as soon as I arrived at the infant ward where these women had brought their babies to be examined, that my concern about getting bitten by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes paled in comparison with what they and their children were going through.
Sitting near a mango tree offering some shade, one mother began sobbing when she described the shock that followed her son’s diagnosis with microcephaly. Another woman stoically told me how doctors had informed her that her daughter would soon start suffering debilitating seizures, a complication from microcephaly.
“I’d like to dream this isn’t happening,” Dr. Angela Rocha, the pediatrician in charge of the infant ward, told me in her office.
Those words echoed in my mind as I raced back to my hotel to write about the heartbreaking scene at the hospital. After filing my story to the International desk in New York, I found a pharmacy a couple of blocks away and bought a plastic bottle of Off!
Zika is new to Brazil; researchers think it showed up here sometime around the 2014 World Cup. As far as mosquito-borne viruses go, Zika was thought to be relatively benign — until recently. Most people who get it have no symptoms at all; those who do have a rash, fever, itching and perhaps some body aches.
Disease specialists from the United States and Brazil are still trying to definitively establish a link between Zika and microcephaly. Meanwhile, doctors have made a connection between Zika and an alarming surge in Guillain-Barré, a syndrome that can leave patients nearly paralyzed for weeks on end.
Long before Zika fears spread through the Americas, people who live in the tropics have been struggling with frightening viruses. The same mosquitoes involved in the Zika epidemic transmit diseases like dengue, which killed more than 800 people in Brazil in 2015.
Faced with such numbers, my wife, Carolina, and I have long taken every precaution we can against mosquitoes. We slather mosquito repellent on our sons, who are 8 and 11. We installed screens on the doors and windows in our home in Rio de Janeiro. We burn repellent-infused coils. We hunt down mosquitoes with zapping rackets.
As repellents go, I’ve found that nothing beats the gel I first came across in 2013 at Brazil’s Jungle Warfare Instruction Center, which trains elite Brazilian military units and special operations forces from around the world to survive under extremely punishing conditions in the Amazon River Basin.
During dozens of reporting trips to rain forests in South America, I’ve discovered, however, that even the best repellents are useless in the face of swarming mosquitoes.
On one trip in 2014 in the far reaches of the Brazilian Amazon for a story on the pirarucu, a coveted megafish that is pursued with harpoons, I slept, in a hammock outside a fisherman’s family hut, fully clothed, bathed in repellent and under a mosquito net.
My precautions were useless. Dozens of persistent mosquitoes bit through the netting, the fabric of the hammock and my clothing. I’m very lucky — and knock wood as I wrote these words — not to have had dengue, malaria or Zika, after postings in Rio and Caracas over the last decade.
Deadly mosquito-borne diseases aren’t new to Brazil or South America. Before the advent of a yellow fever vaccine, 19th century travelers referred to Rio de Janeiro as a “foreigners’ graveyard.”
In “The Fever,” Sonia Shah’s riveting 2010 book, the writer reminds us that humankind’s struggle with mosquito-borne malaria stretches back 500,000 years and played a big role in historical events including the settling of the New World and the fall of Rome.
My work sometimes takes me to remote swamplands and forests teeming with life; when I return from far-flung venues like this, my sons still ask me about the treacherous animals I encountered. “See any piranhas?,” they ask, when I return from river trips, “or bullet ants?,” whose sting lasts for a good 24 hours. Recife, my son Tomas reminded me, is known for its deadly shark attacks.
My interviews with the grieving mothers of children who have been born with brain damage during the Zika outbreak provide a grim, humbling reminder: The most dangerous animal for humans by far continues to be the mosquito.
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