Brazil army employed in Zika fight as Rio preps for Olympics
 By Ben Tavener

Brazil will soon deploy troops to inform residents how to tackle the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus -- blamed for a spike in birth defects, local media reported Tuesday.

Officials said 220,000 armed forces troops will go door-to-door beginning Feb. 13 to hand out leaflets on how to reduce breeding grounds for the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Health Minister Marcelo Castro told O Globo newspaper that Brazil was "losing badly" in its fight against the mosquito, which requires a small amount of still water to breed and, that the advance of Zika was "one of biggest public health crises yet seen" in the country.

Zika causes symptoms in around 20 percent of adults, including fever, rash and conjunctivitis, but Brazilian scientists and officials believe the virus is behind a recent spike in microcephaly -- a birth defect characterized by unusually small heads and underdeveloped brains in newborns.

Since Oct. 22, there has been 3,900 cases of microcephaly suspected of being linked to Zika.

There is currently no vaccine or cure for the virus. Publicity campaigns are urging Brazilians to clear areas of stagnant water and avoid being bitten.

Many Brazilians have started storing water in tanks because of drought conditions in recent years, which is thought to have boosted mosquito numbers. In some areas, authorities now have the right to break into and treat properties suspected of harboring mosquito breeding grounds.

It has also been announced that 400,000 pregnant women who receive the Bolsa Família social handout will be provided with free repellent.

Although the link to birth defects has not been independently confirmed, some countries in the region that have reported cases of the virus have advised their citizens to postpone pregnancies.

The World Health Organization says Zika is likely to spread throughout the Americas, with the exception of Canada and Chile.

Health authorities in some countries have urged caution for those traveling to the region, with the U.S. and Britain advising pregnant women and those trying to conceive to consider postponing travel to the area until more is known about the virus.

Laura Rodrigues, a senior scientist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told British media that women should "consider abandoning their trip" to Rio if there is a chance they will become pregnant in the weeks before their departure.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is native to Africa but is now found in tropical regions worldwide, is also responsible for spreading yellow fever, chikungunya and dengue fever.

Brazil recorded a record 1.6 million cases of dengue in 2015, according to official data, with 839 confirmed deaths -- an increase of 80 percent compared to 2014. The health crisis comes as Brazil prepares to welcome large numbers of tourists to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in August and September.

Authorities have said action against breeding grounds will be stepped up at Olympic sites beginning in April.
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