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Zika: Awareness is the best repellent

About a year ago, I finished writing a book of fiction, called “BUZZ.” I wanted to see if I could write a thriller.

I tried to think of something in real life that people were already afraid of. (That seemed to have worked for “Jaws.”) So I thought about it a lot and finally came up with mosquitoes. Not the mosquitoes that we’re all familiar with — but rather mosquitoes that had been infected by a poisonous substance, and therefore caused hideous harm to the victims they bite.

David Lebedoff

As I say, this was pure fiction — then.

But now something terrible has happened. I’d never heard of it when writing the book, but the Zika virus has now emerged as a very serious threat — and it is spread by a mosquito bite, with ghastly results. If the victim is a pregnant woman, she may go on to bear a child with microcephaly — a disease whose most obvious symptom is infants born with abnormally small heads. There is substantial risk of brain damage, and other very serious medical problems.

Already, in Brazil — which this week confirmed 641 confirmed cases of microcephaly since Oct. 22 — this disease is suspected of having marred the lives of more than 4,000 babies. In El Salvador the results are so horrible that the government has urged women not to have babies for the next two years! The pope recently suggested that church prohibitions on some birth control methods may be suspended because of this crisis.

And the Zika virus is not confined to South and Central America. It will soon be coming here. The mosquitoes that carry Zika are the same type, Aedes aegypti, that infest the Gulf states in warmer weather. The mosquitoes found in Minnesota are not of this type, but there is the possibility that they could become carriers as well.

There is much that we can do to protect pregnant women from this menace. There are things we should know, and know now. We’re already been warned by our own and international health groups of some wise precautions — repellents, protective clothing, the draining of standing water in which mosquito larvae lurk.

But we haven’t been told a particularly alarming fact — that when mosquitoes set out to draw blood from a human being in order to help fertilize their own eggs, their preferred target for biting, and much preferred, is pregnant women. They are twice as likely to be bitten as other women, research indicates. So those at greatest risk are also the most sought after. And the Zika damage is believed to occur in the first trimester of pregnancy — during much of which some women may not even know that they are pregnant. So the danger will be felt by most women of child-bearing age.

Women who are or think that they could be pregnant should take extraordinary precautions when the Zika mosquitoes arrive. It isn’t enough to wear protective clothing — one should know whether the garments should be dark or light in color. (Light: Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors.)

I heard a spokesman for the National Institutes of Health minimize the danger of Zika in this country, because, he said, most people here have air conditioning and screens. Indeed we do, but we still get bitten by mosquitoes. And not only outdoors.

Tragically, by midsummer the major story in our country may not be the presidential election. The worst effects of the coming plague can be avoided — but awareness is the best repellent, and the time to start preparing is right now.

So stop praying that the snow melts quickly. Something far worse is going to follow it.

David Lebedoff, of Minneapolis, is the author of “BUZZ.”

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