Red Cross volunteers in the Americas are working hard to ensure that household water tanks – which are used to help communities cope with droughts related to El Niño – do not become breeding grounds for the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus.
Globally, more than 60 million people have been affected by droughts related to El Niño, which have affected agricultural production and damaged food security. Some countries in the Dry Corridor of Central America have been forced to declare a state of national emergency, with responses focused on water provision and the rehabilitation of supply systems.
However, the solution to one crisis – the drought – could worsen the ongoing Zika public health emergency, so the Red Cross is taking action in communities across the Americas to raise awareness of good practices in water, sanitation, and disease prevention.
The use of gathering and containment tanks in the home for washing, cooking and drinking water during periods of drought – particularly in rural areas - has raised concerns that they could lead to the spread of Zika virus disease, which has already affected 33 countries and territories in the Americas. If the tanks are not well-covered, they can become breeding site for the Aedes Aegypti mosquito which spreads Zika, dengue, and chikungunya.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched a Zika awareness campaign called "Clean up, cover up, keep it up" to educate, inform, raise awareness and assist in housekeeping, pest control and chemical control of the mosquito population. It encourages communities to lead the fight against Zika by eliminating potential mosquito breeding grounds by cleaning and emptying any objects where water can stagnate, covering water tanks, and removing garbage.
Honduran Red Cross has mobilized more than 800 volunteers as part of the Zika response in cities like San Manuel Villanueva and in the Department of Cortés, where they aim to reach around 30,000 people. Volunteers are fumigating buildings, applying larvicide in the water tanks of more than 4,750 homes, and holding educational workshops and lectures.
In Nova Friburgo, southeastern Brazil, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, volunteers from the Brazilian Red Cross tell Aparecida Emerick, owner of a grocery store, how to properly fill and store his rooftop water barrel, which was previously full of mosquito larvae. More than a thousand volunteers have been mobilized throughout the country to respond to current and future outbreaks of Zika, dengue or chikungunya, and improve the resilience of the population.
And in the neighborhood of Jacarecica in the northeast State of Alagoas, 17-year-old Irmeide Custodio, who is six months pregnant, listens to a Red Cross volunteer who has visited her with Zika prevention advice.
"I know I have to use insect repellent, and there should be no standing water ... and other things," she says. The family has a pot of mosquito repellent, but their house was full of potential breeding sites: a bucket full of poorly-covered water bottles placed in a corner, and a bucket with some water forgotten in the back of the house.
In Cristo Rey in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Ricardo Guzman and his mother Belkis – who are both volunteers for the Dominican Red Cross – are making sure the "Clean up, cover up, keep it up" message is shared among their neighbours, and encouraging their community to make these healthy behaviours a daily habit. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays they bring water to their community, and before filling drums, Ricardo thoroughly cleans each tank and bowls, adds larvicide, and reminds people that this process must repeated every three weeks.
Simple measures such as these will help communities affected by Zika and El Niño to keep themselves safe and healthy and improve their access to water and sanitation, even in the middle of a drought.