Combating Zika in Puerto Rico

By |  May 1, 2017

Bert PuttermanA primary focus for Bert Putterman, market vice president of Rentokil, is pest control in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Both of these areas have been battling the Zika virus for the past three years. Mosquito-borne disease has long been a bane to the region, from dengue fever to West Nile virus (WNV), and more recently, chikungunya disease.

“When Zika virus first appeared on the island of Puerto Rico, there was somewhat of a laissez faire attitude among the public,” Putterman admits, noting they had been through the “sky is falling” media coverage before, and the reality never seemed to live up to the hype. “But then media reports on the discovery of the microcephaly birth defects started, and people realized just how horrible Zika could be.

“A large percentage of people here are very poor, and cannot purchase services for mosquito control,” Putterman continues. “There is only a narrow demographic of middle and upper middle class people whom can pay for mosquito services on their homes. Most of our mosquito customers tend to be hospitality services and large manufacturing facilities that want to protect their clients and employees.”

With that in mind, in early 2016 Rentokil/Oliver Exterminating joined with the local government — and with the local Dengue Branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — to get out ahead of the Zika threat.

“We began contacting local WIC centers, hospitals and schools to determine need and provide preventative services,” Putterman recalls. “Through the government, we began offering free services to the homes of pregnant women. Using federal grant money, the program began by inspecting and treating for Aedes egypti. This species, which carries Zika virus, are day flyers. The adult mosquito’s rest or alight on the bottom of foliage on and around the homes. As Puerto Rico is a tropical island with a lot of rain and a lot of foliage, mosquitoes fly into the homes through windows which lack screens or central air-conditioning and feed on the residents”

The program reached out to more than 3,000 pregnant women, and within the first six months, surveyed and serviced more than 1,500 homes — introducing screens while applying larvicides and adulticides to mitigate populations. Unfortunately, though, Putterman said that some environmental groups were equating the integrated pest management (IPM) program with aerial adulticiding that had occurred in other markets, and began picketing, demonstrating and advising, incorrectly, that the program was endangering the health of the pregnant women.

Even though the programs were apples and oranges, so to speak, Putterman says his group didn’t want to incur negative publicity and pulled back from the project to regroup in August.

“In the meantime, the Dengue branch had been looking at a totally different approach to the problem, utilizing traps,” he continues. “This approach focused on source and site reduction, intensive trapping and utilized a very small amount of larviciding to reduce populations significantly.”

Rentokil/Oliver was contracted to introduce this program on a city wide trial basis. “The city of Caguas, a mid-island city with significant rainfall and 33,000 structures was selected for the trial. The plan was to put three traps at every structure in the city,” he says, noting they began a ”Pop-Up” branch office starting in September. “While we are the largest company on the island, we didn’t have the personnel to do this in an eight-week window. Rentokil provided us with training and educational support, and we hired 51 people in 30 days, training them on how to assemble and place the traps. Thirty-five of the new hires were just to put out the traps.”

Putterman says the program necessitated them working with city leaders, the police and community leaders to facilitate access to all of the structures.

The traps themselves, are simple and consist of a 5-gal. bucket halfway filled with water and hay (as a medium for wigglers to hatch out). A glue board is attached inside the top of the trap.

As of mid-April, Putterman reports that the program has covered more than 80 percent of the structures in Caguas, using more than 90,000 traps. “Data is refreshed weekly, measuring populations in the cities eight target zones. Both the CDC and Rentokil have Quality Assurance programs to assure effective results,” he says. “What we’ve seen over the length of this project, which started Nov. 1, is that populations of the mosquitoes decreased significantly in the areas of source reduction and trapping. We are affecting mosquito abatement in a positive way.”

The team uses leaflets to explain to the public what they are doing, why and what the cost is.

“When we began returning to maintenance the traps, we noticed that a number of the originally distributed traps were missing,” Putterman says. “It turns out that people were taking the traps across town to give to relatives. We had to explain to the people that ‘We were going to do everyone — they’ll get their own traps, too.’”

As he quips, “The startup was like drinking from a fire hose for six months to get this project launched. But now we’re getting a handle on it and feel that we are winning the battle against the mosquito’s and fulfilling Rentokil’s mission of protecting the public’s health and safety.”

Featured photo: iStock.com/teptong

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