There has been a big turn of events in the months since the Brazilian health minister Marcelo Castro first expressed his certainties. Now there are more doubts than certainties. We are referring to the cases of microcephaly that are increasing in Brazil, in the northeast of the country in particular.
The minister’s declaration left no room for doubt: he was 100% certain that microcephaly was caused by the Zika virus, but something didn’t quite add up. On February 3 last, for example, the New York Times reported that out of 404 babies examined with this cranial malformation, only 17 tested positive for the virus.
Doubts were raised by two reports, the first, Physicians in the Crop Sprayed Villages, drawn up by a team of Argentine doctors, the second by the Brazilian Collective Health Association (Abrasco), which pointed the finger at Pyriproxyfen, a larvicide commercialized for 18 months by the Japanese multinational Sumitomo Chemicals, which collaborates with Monsanto in countries such as Argentina and Brazil. The larvicide had been approved by the World Health Organization in 2004 and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001.
Pyriproxyfen is a growth regulator of the larvae of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, designed to prevent them growing through the pupa stage to adulthood. Since 2014 it has been used extensively in Brazil, where it has been put directly into drinking water supplies. In the meantime, cases of microcephaly have increased. It is hard not to hypothesize the existence of a correlation between use of the larvicide and the increase.
Yet a controversy has blown up anyway, characterized by the tones that we are all too accustomed to hearing in cases involving public health, chemical products and the multinationals, with the Argentine and Brazilian doctors and journalists being accused of hatching yet another conspiracy theory and the safeness of Pyriproxyfen being cited from many quarters.
It is reasonable to harbor doubts, though. Just as, even thought the real culprit has yet to be identified, it is reasonable to take into serious consideration the analyses of the two teams of doctors. We wish to focus on one element above all others. Arguably, in a case like that of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, it might have been worth following a different course before making massive recourse to chemicals, which could and indeed seems to have had dire consequences for human health and the species targeted by the intervention. Before filling the water supply with Pyriproxyfen, it might have been possible to come up with a different solution: such as the reclamation of an already fragile, compromised environment which, as emerges from the reports, has problems of hygiene, waste disposal and a lack of safe drinking water … The situation of poverty and social inequality described by the Argentine and Brazilian doctors makes for depressing reading. It is no coincidence that, in the majority of cases, babies infected by the malformation belong to the poorer sections of the population.
They may have thought that using Pyriproxyfen would salvage the situation. Unfortunately, as often seems to happen, insofar as they hit a whole set of elements, not just the target insect, chemical solutions are not a safe strategy to adopt.
One chapter in the Brazilian report carries the significant title ‘Mais venenos, mais resistência, mais venenos’ (More poisons, more resistance, more poisons). We are now seeing how this logic is deeply ineffective in many ambits: suffice it to think of factory farms, where cases of antimicrobial resistance and resistance to intensive monocultures, which require increasingly large doses of herbicides and pesticides, are more and more frequent. These are all solutions in which the only winners are the large corporations, while the environment, human and animal health gain nothing.
Solving the problem more radically would bring about real renewal and produce advantages for communities. The BBC, for example, has reported a natural remedy that seems to have solved the problem in El Salvador, where they tackled the propagation of the dengue virus by doing something very simple: namely putting fish into water tanks. The result was that the fish ate the insect larvae and the virus disappeared, along with the insects that were causing it to spread. This is the kind of solution we admire: more attentive to the environment, fairer for people, further away from chemicals.