A group of 10 University of Arizona students dressed in identical navy and white polo shirts stuffed pamphlets into bright green bags and stacked surveys on wooden clipboards before piling into cars and hitting the streets of Nogales last Thursday.
Canvasing neighborhoods door-to-door and stationed outside the local Wal-Mart, the students launched a campaign in Santa Cruz County as part of a statewide “Fight the Bite” project, which is aimed at preventing the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses.
The students are part of a University of Arizona College of Medicine summer program called Focusing Research on the Border Area (FRONTERA), which teamed up with Southeast Arizona Area Health Education Center (SEAHEC) to do community outreach.
“We take advantage of an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Gail Emrick, the executive director of Nogales-based SEAHEC. “We don’t make up projects for the kids.”
This year, organizers decided to focus on mosquito prevention as part of a partnership between SEAHEC, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the county government to tackle a lack of information and misinformation about the risks associated with mosquito bites, Emrick said.
“It’s perfect timing, because we’re in the first few weeks of monsoon season,” she said, in reference to a prime breeding period for mosquitoes.
Mosquito-borne illnesses have received increased publicity with the rise of the Zika virus in Brazil and other Latin American countries this year. The rapid spread of the disease and its link to neurological diseases, including microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, has raised concerns in the United States.
The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) reports nine confirmed cases of the disease in the state, but these cases are “imported” or travel-associated, meaning the virus was contracted somewhere else and brought back to Arizona by someone who already had it in their body, said Victor Dominguez, an epidemiologist with Santa Cruz County Health Services.
Though the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika, dengue and chikungunya, is found in Arizona, so far mosquitoes here have not been shown to carry the diseases, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“Just because a virus is present in a place doesn’t mean that it is being carried by mosquitoes,” said Michelle Diaz, 21, a FRONTERA student and a native of Rio Rico. “It’s important not to jump to conclusions.”
Still, the “encroaching threat” of Zika and other diseases, especially in border communities like Nogales, and the presence of West Nile Virus and St. Lous Encephalitis in Arizona, means that it is important for community members be informed “so we’re not living in fear, but we can protect ourselves,” Diaz said.
Educating people about how to prevent mosquito bites is key to stopping the spread of disease, Dominguez said.
Spreading the word
A woman sprayed a little girl with a garden hose while the child splashed in a small blow-up pool complete with two green palm trees and a zebra-striped slide when Diaz and UA professor Alejandra Zapien Hidalgo pulled-up outside a house in the Monte Carlo neighborhood Thursday afternoon.
“Our first victims,” Zapien quipped, as she and Diaz walked toward the yard to conduct a survey.
They asked Laura Garcia, 19, what she knew about mosquito-borne illnesses, what she did to prevent mosquito bites and if she felt at risk of being exposed to diseases, then left her with a bag full of information about preventing mosquito breeding and bites before continuing on down the street.
“A lot of people know about the disease, but not how to prevent it,” Zapien said as she walked up to another house where she asked the residents if they cleaned up their porch or yard to keep mosquitoes away.
“Educating people about what they can do is so important,” Diaz said. “The more we can make our communities aware, the more healthful they will be.”
Among the most important ways to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses from spreading is to decrease breeding grounds, said Dominguez of the county health department. Anywhere that water collects becomes a perfect habitat for mosquitos to lay eggs, he said.
Wearing mosquito repellent and protective clothing, putting screens on windows and avoiding going to areas where there is a lot of sitting water are also key, he said.
In addition to the door-to-door “Fight the Bite” campaign, the county is tracking mosquitoes found locally. Nogales High School students, through SEAHEC, collected mosquito eggs to identify the types of mosquitoes in the area as part of the ADHS “Great Arizona Mosquito Hunt.” The idea is to confirm that the type of mosquito that carries Zika, dengue and chikungunya is present in the area, even though the diseases – so far – are not.