To combat the spread of the Zika virus, Brazil has zapped male mosquitoes with gamma rays, rolled out cyber mosquitos and smartphone apps, released genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild, and deployed nearly 250,000 troops to spray insecticides and add larvicides where mosquitoes lay eggs.
Indeed, Brazilian authorities seem willing to do almost anything to curb Zika’s expansion. Just don’t ask them to install window screens.
Most Brazilians – even a number of Zika experts who spoke with AQ – don’t have screens on their windows. While cost and lack of information are certainly factors, many Brazilians choose not to install screens as a matter of taste: Window screens block the breeze and disagree with a preference for leaving windows and doors always open.
“It’s the culture of this country to leave the windows open,” said Mônica Ferreira Moreira, an associate professor in the department of biochemicals at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), who is currently developing a mosquito insecticide. She said she has avoided installing window screens at her Rio home because it would make the rooms more stuffy and hot.
“My mother-in-law installed window screens but then she leaves her doors open,” Moreira told AQ in a phone interview. “Here, all the doors and windows are open all the time. It’s our culture. Our houses are not closed like in the United States.”
With the Rio Olympics less than five months away, international athletes and spectators are weighing the risks to visiting a city with more than 6,000 reported cases of Zika since January. While four in five people who contract the viral infection may have no symptoms, the potential link with the birth defect microcephaly is strong enough for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to warn pregnant women against traveling to Zika-infested areas and recommend visitors “stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.”
That may be a tall order. Open and unscreened windows and doorways are as common in favelas and low-income homes as they are in wealthy neighborhoods and upscale apartment buildings. Even athletes competing in the August Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will need to pay up to $100 per window screen if they want them installed in their rooms, a penny-pinching decision after air conditioning in the athlete’s apartments was also nixed amid cost-cutting efforts.
Davis Fernandes Ferreira, vice director of the Institute of Microbiology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), was another of a handful of Zika experts in Brazil who told AQ that they had not bothered to install mosquito screens at their homes despite growing alarm worldwide over the virus. Rather than shell out some $50 to install screens in his home in Rio, Ferreira said he prefers to periodically bomb his house with insecticide and close the windows when mosquitos are most active.
“I don’t have a lot of mosquitos where I live,” he said in a phone interview. “I kill maybe one mosquito every two weeks.”
Ferreira called it a misperception that homes without air conditioning or window screens in Brazil are necessarily at a higher risk of Zika, as that ignores factors such as where a home is located. Tall lodgings such as the 31 17-floor towers of the Athlete’s Village are mostly inaccessible to mosquitoes, said Ferreira, who advises foreigners visiting for the Olympics to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and to bring plenty of bug repellent from the U.S. because of shortages in Brazil.
Edimilson Migowski, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UFRJ and a public authority on Zika, also said that he has never bothered to install screens on the windows of his Copacabana apartment – not because he can’t afford it, but because the idea never seemed useful.
“In my opinion, the main problem is not the lack of screens on the windows, it’s that we don’t have the basic sanitation to avoid the Zika virus,” Migowski told AQ, highlighting the prevalence of piles of trash and standing pools of water in his city. “If I were the government, I wouldn’t spend money putting in screens. I would spend money improving the trash collection, the storage of the water, and giving more education to the population. This kind of investment in my opinion is better than just putting screens in the windows.”
It wasn’t always this way. Window screens used to be widespread in Brazil, according to Dr. Paolo Marinho de Andrade Zanotto, a professor of microbiology at the University of São Paulo. “Putting nets over beds and window screens was quite common 40 to 50 years ago and before,” he told AQ. “I had them both in my room when I was a child even before dengue made a comeback!”
“For some reason this cultural feature was mostly lost,” Zanotto said.
This trend toward open windows may have been influenced by deforestation, noted Dr. Bergmann Ribeiro, president of the Brazilian Society for Virology and a professor at the University of Brasília. Mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever were formerly a problem in Brazil’s coastal cities and spurred people to install window screens, but that threat dissipated with the clearing of tropical forests.
Ribeiro was unaware of any government efforts to stimulate window screen installation today.
“Even with the Zika problem I have not seen many people talking about window screens for avoiding mosquitoes,” said Ribeiro, who also does not have screens on the windows of his home in Brasília. “People do not use them because there are few places where you can buy a window screen.”
He added: “Maybe this will change after Zika.”
Kurczy is a special correspondent to AQ.