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Engaging Communities Against Mosquitoes

Hurricane Maria was a vicious monster.


Five months after it visited Puerto Rico and virtually wiped the Island out, about half of the population remains in the dark or without reliable power and swarms of mosquitoes continue to prey on everyone, especially those left without adequate shelter.


Hurricane Maria dumped almost forty inches of rain (101 cm) in less than a week; a record that everyone hopes will remain unbroken. The unprecedented amount of precipitation filled every puddle, pond, lake and river beyond their capacity and produced widespread flooding in areas with no history of flooding. The huge volumes of water that remained


in the swelled rivers flowed downstream at high speeds as the rivers rushed to relieve themselves into the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea. As they reached the coastline, an exceptionally high storm surge estimated to be in the range of eight to twelve feet (2.5 to 3.0 meters) impeded it. The ensuing flooding could only be described as biblical. The vast majority of the coastal communities disappeared under raging sea water with swells well beyond twenty feet (6 meters).  Dozens of villages on the pluvial plains several miles inland were swallowed by river water after swollen rivers went over their banks and many close to shore succumbed to a combination of both.


Adding complexity to the situation, the ferocity of the storm was such that it sank a handful of tug boats docked at the commercial ports in San Juan Bay and broke the anchoring chains of many of the aids to navigation helping guide commercial freighters and barges in and out of it. This closed the port for ten days. In addition, the radar used to guide air traffic in and around Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands, the radar guiding aircraft in their final approach to San Juan's international airport and the airport's control tower and radar were obliterated by Maria's winds. This closed the airport at least two weeks until combat air traffic controllers could begin operations. Even after the airport reopened, air operations would be limited to military aircraft and air cargo at least a month. As if this was not enough, almost every cell phone tower was either knocked down by the storm or left without power.


As an island surrounded by a big ocean, as was described by Mr. Trump weeks after the event, Puerto Rico would be on her own, in the dark, without communications and counting on whatever was available before the storm that was not ruined by it -including fuel- for weeks.


Not a very comfortable place to be in.


As the weeks slowly crawled by and relief efforts got underway, the prolonged absence of electricity produced a myriad of unexpected problems. Shortly after Hurricane Maria left and the sun came out, anecdotal reports of a high number of deaths associated with failures of medical equipment due to lack of power began to surface. These included failure of oxygen concentrators at elderly in retirement homes or at-home care, lack of timely dialysis, inadequate refrigeration of insulin and other essential drugs, etc. Lack of reliable power produced another problem: no potable, piped water. This forced residents to collect water for drinking, washing, sanitation and cooking in any number of containers or drink from questionable sources, creeks and streams. More significantly, water treatment plants were not able to properly treat the water and pump it to their customers. This created public health problems very few departments of health are prepared to respond to: the production of large populations of container-breeding mosquitoes and an outbreak of leptospirosis that claimed at least a dozen lives.


As relief, recovery and reconstruction continue, a handful of communities managed to return to a reasonable semblance of what they were like prior to the event. Rebuilt homes and shelters provided much need physical barriers against the elements and some protection from the large numbers of a handful of mosquito species marauding the neighborhoods seeking a blood meal. While trees stripped of their leaves -and some even their bark- by the unprecedented strength and ferocity of Hurricane Maria's winds began growing leaves again, mosquitoes were surely pleased by the unexpected surge in potential blood meals in the form of first responders and relief workers. 


As progress continues, many communities face the reality that no government has the resources or capacity to respond to a disaster of the scope and magnitude left in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Under siege by several species of mosquitoes emerging after the event, a community in Loíza, Puerto Rico, one of the most severely affected municipalities on the Island, decided to take matters into their own hands and sought help.


As part of an effort to engage the community help itself and increase the chances of success of a mosquito population suppression intervention, I accepted the challenge posed by a local NGO to work with a group of middle school and high school students from Loíza, Puerto Rico, one of the most seriously affected communities on the Island. After two sessions discussing mosquitoes, their biology and importance, I asked them if they were interested in developing a plan to "spread the word" about mosquitoes and what the communities could do to help reduce their numbers. The result was amazing and surprised everyone. They were not just interested in the idea. As they considered their options, they came up with a 30 minute skit directed at grade school kids that was just shy of magnificent. In just ten days, they produced a play, change the lyrics to a well known song into information about mosquitoes and ways to control them, designed costumes, and choreographed their show. All on their own!


The success was such that they have given the show in three schools within their school district and have been invited to perform in neighboring districts. Their enthusiasm is so contagious that three science fair projects on mosquitoes have been approved.


Just under a month after the first exploratory visit, the change in the community is palpable and conditions are becoming less favorable for the mosquito. There are no words to express how impressed I am by their energy and enthusiasm. 

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