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Recession and corruption hinder Zika fight

By Associated Press in Campina Grande, Brazil (China Daily) Updated: 2016-03-19 08:11

Last May, as the first cases of Zika were being detected in Brazil, cities at the frontlines of the epidemic stopped receiving government shipments of insecticide to kill mosquitoes.

In Campina Grande, a city of 400,000, the shortages continued even after President Dilma Rousseff declared the mosquito-borne virus a national health emergency on Nov 11.

The lack of larvicide is one of a string of public health failings crippling Brazil's ability to manage the Zika outbreak and the surge in rare birth defects believed linked to it. A weeklong tour by The Associated Press of the impoverished northeast where the epidemic is most severe found public hospitals starved for funding and local officials scrambling to care for the stricken babies.

"In 19 years of working in environmental control I've never seen so much disorganization," said Rossandra Oliveira, who manages mosquito control in Campina Grande.

The immediate culprit is Brazil's deepest recession since the 1930s. But experts said the collective failure to tackle corruption and crushing inequality is also to blame.

If addressing such long-standing scourges weren't a steep enough challenge, Rousseff must now do so while fighting for political survival. This week, thousands of Brazilians poured into the streets to demand she resign over a corruption scandal now ensnaring her mentor Inacio Lula da Silva.

Health Minister Marcelo Castro was at a loss to explain what happened.

"If there was this shortage - which I cannot attest to if there was or not - it was for a short time, and was an isolated incident that does not affect the overall situation," Castro said.

Castro said shipments have been normalized since he took office last October. But documents from prosecutors indicate that the shortages were so severe supplies had to be rationed nationwide between August and October.

In September, Pernambuco state officials even discussed using substitutes like household bleach or small fish to eat mosquito larvae.

Castro said that the most effective way to fight mosquitoes is eliminating the breeding sites lurking inside homes.

Still, resources are tight. The Health Ministry lost almost 3 percent of its budget in cuts last month.

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