If bug-spray makers and U.S. health officials get their way, Off and other insect repellents will take up permanent space alongside toothpaste in America’s medicine cabinets.
Drugstores and local agencies are doing their part in the marketing push by issuing warnings about Zika, a virus that causes devastating birth defects in babies infected in the womb. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the species of mosquito that carries Zika has been found across most of the nation, sparing only some parts of the West and the northernmost states.
“If you are going outside, wear mosquito repellent,” said Michael Beach, deputy incident manager for the CDC’s Zika response team. “It needs to be the same as putting on sunscreen or brushing your teeth.”
As concerns mount over the spread of Zika from Latin America, bug-spray manufacturers are boosting production and labeling products as effective for fighting it, while pharmacies are increasing orders and installing in-store displays. In New York, the most-populous U.S. city, officials are gearing up with a comprehensive public-health program based on lessons learned from fighting the West Nile virus more than a decade ago.
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The goal of health experts isn’t to overwhelm or scare people but to prepare the public for the likelihood that Zika infections may start to transmit locally, Beach said. There are currently 600 pregnant women in the United States with Zika infections contracted abroad who are being monitored.
“This virus is a game changer from a reproductive-health standpoint because the birth defects are horrendous in nature,” Beach said.
New York launched a three-year Zika-control program in April that expands testing, monitoring and eradication. The city of 8.4 million people is tapping its experience from previous bouts with West Nile, a virus transmitted by a different species of mosquito than the one that carries Zika.
West Nile, meanwhile, doesn’t produce symptoms in most people, but it can cause serious symptoms such as paralysis and vision loss in about 1 in 150 infected people. The virus appeared in the Western Hemisphere in and around New York in 1999, causing serious illness in dozens and seven deaths that year. The city employed large-scale pesticide spraying, including by air.
Today in New York, it’s Zika that’s getting the attention. “Reduce your risk of Zika virus,” says a sign accompanying an “Off Deep Woods” bug-spray display near the checkout of a midtown Manhattan Duane Reade drugstore. Signs in the city’s subway system and elsewhere urge New Yorkers to “Fight Back” against Zika by using repellent and dumping standing water.
It’s not enough for people to be vigilant only from dusk to dawn, when most mosquitoes bite, the CDC says. Aedes mosquitoes, the species that transmits Zika, are active in the daytime. They live inside people’s homes and often bite each member of a family, taking sips of blood from each.
Retailers and manufacturers are scrambling to ensure they’re ready as the summer mosquito season approaches in the Northern Hemisphere. Duane Reade parent Walgreens is working with bug-spray makers to boost supplies, said Phil Caruso, a spokesman. It added brochures about the virus to its 120 Puerto Rico stores earlier this year.
Manufacturers have cranked up production to ensure they have enough supply of insect repellent to meet a potential spike in demand. Spectrum Brands Holdings Inc., maker of Cutter, has already seen a 19 percent surge in sales of personal bug sprays over the past six months compared with the same period last year, said John Pailthorp, a spokesman for the Middleton, Wisconsin-based company.
Spectrum expects to increase capacity of its spray repellents by almost 60 percent when a new production line debuts later this year. In the meantime, it’s added temporary lines and offsite manufacturing to meet demand, Pailthorp said. The company, which is updating its packaging, displays and websites to include Zika information, is working with federal officials to get language approved in record time, Pailthorp said.
SC Johnson & Son Inc., maker of Off sprays, boosted production in Latin America starting in November as reports of local cases started to trickle in, said spokesman Jeff McCollum. It started ramping up U.S. production early this year, running its largest facility — near the company’s Racine, Wis., headquarters — around the clock. Peak demand in the U.S. has been about 50 percent higher than last year, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of capacity to even make more as we need it,” McCollum said. “We’re working with a real sense of urgency.”
There are several other infections carried by mosquitoes that strike thousands of Americans each year. While they don’t create the same fear as Zika, which is still poorly understood and impossible to treat, they produce their own set of devastating symptoms, including neurological damage and even death.
Dengue and chikungunya, two serious diseases also carried by Aedes mosquitos, now appear across the continental U.S. Then there’s West Nile, which is still present in 48 states.
Dengue, which can cause a high fever, severe pain, rash and mild bleeding, has already been reported this year in the Florida Keys, an unusually early start. The virus can cause dengue hemorrhagic fever, a severe form that can kill if not recognized early. Chikungunya, diagnosed in a nontraveling American for the first time in 2014, can cause fever, joint pain and muscle aches. There’s no prevention or cure for either, with patients getting supportive care to help their bodies fight the infection.
“We have multiple viruses that are spread by mosquitoes,” the CDC’s Beach said. “It’s not just about avoiding nuisance mosquitoes any more. It’s about disease.”