CHICAGO, Illinois — Every year across the world, around 700 million people are infected with a mosquito-borne disease. Central America is no stranger to this issue. With thousands of cases being diagnosed every year, mosquito-borne diseases in Central America represent a current and growing threat to the region’s public health.
Common Mosquito-Borne Diseases in Central America
Dengue Virus: Though present in the Americas for hundreds of years, incidence has grown rapidly in Central America, with a large outbreak in 2019. Symptoms generally last no more than a week and include a fever, rash and aches but one out of 20 people will develop severe symptoms. While fatality from dengue is relatively low, thousands of deaths still occur every year.
Zika Virus: A Zika outbreak that began in Brazil in 2015 spread through Latin America and significantly impacted Central America, with thousands of estimated cases every week in 2016. While symptoms such as a fever, rash and headaches are mild for most, Zika’s danger comes in its ability to be passed between a pregnant mother and her baby. This may lead to brain defects such as microcephaly in the child. Though there has been a large drop in cases in recent years, epidemiologists warn that transmission is continuing and could flare up in the future.
Chikungunya Virus: Though historically associated with Africa and Asia, chikungunya has recently spread to much of Latin America. The disease had a strong impact on Central America with Honduras alone reporting 85,386 cases in 2015. The disease typically causes fever and joint pain. Though deaths from chikungunya are rare, it can be disabling and potentially fatal for the elderly and those with comorbidities.
Why are These Diseases Present?
While mosquitoes are a global pest, a country’s environmental conditions determine what kind of mosquito will thrive, and what diseases they will bring. The common culprit for all three of these illnesses is the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This species flourishes in tropical and subtropical climates, much like those of Central America.
Urban poverty can exacerbate the presence of the Aedes aegypti. In cities, poor waste management and sanitation practices create habitats that are friendly to mosquitos.
Though varied, poverty is high in every country in Central America. The region is also urbanizing quickly, second only to Africa, according to the World Bank. Both of these trends provide an increased risk of the proliferation of mosquito-borne diseases in Central America.
Cities are not the only culprit, environmental damage can also increase the risks that the Aedes aegypti play towards humans. Deforestation and new irrigation projects such as dams often create sanctuaries for these bugs, while bringing them in closer contact with human populations. These types of projects have recently increased in Central America as a consequence of changes in land use.
A Malaria Move Out in El Salvador
Though mosquito-borne diseases remain a threat to the region, there has been some recent success. In 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared El Salvador to be “malaria-free”.
The disease has made a rapid decline in the country, dropping from thousands in the 1990s, to dozens in the 2010s and finally to no home-grown cases since 2017. This was accomplished through steady funding of antimalaria programs which included vector controls to reduce mosquito populations along with decentralizing their diagnostic regime to allow for quicker testing and treatment of cases.
A Contagious Solution?
One organization implementing effective solutions against mosquito-borne diseases in Central America is the World Mosquito Program (WMP). WMP breeds mosquitoes with Wolbachia, a safe, naturally occurring bacteria that competes with common viruses.
Once released into the wild, Wolbachia-carrying mosquitoes mate with the virus-carrying population, reducing the likelihood of disease transmission. WMP has found success all over the world with this program and recently expanded its work into Panama.
Along with projects directly affecting the mosquito population, common methods of protection against mosquito-borne diseases include the use of door screens and bed nets, water maintenance and pesticides. En
– Joey Harris