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Argentina is running out of bug spray amid record dengue surge

Argentina is running out of bug spray amid record dengue surge
Aedes aegypti mosquitos in various stages of development are displayed at an exhibition on Dengue fever on January 28, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Bug spray is out of stock across Argentina as the country confronts its worst-ever outbreak of dengue, a mosquito-borne illness that’s surged across Latin America amid high heat and heavy rains.

Argentina reported 233,000 cases of dengue so far during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer — about eight times the number of cases reported during the same week last year — and 161 deaths, according to its Health Ministry. Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina are the hardest hit, with more than 3.5 million cases, 83% of which are concentrated in Brazil, according to the Pan American Health Organisation.

“This is reason for concern, as it represents three times more cases than reported on the same date in 2023, a record year with more than 4.5 million cases reported in the region,” PAHO Director Jarbas Barbosa told reporters on 28 March.

Barbados, Costa Rica, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Martinique and Mexico have all seen surges, Barbosa said. Dengue is also known as the break-bone fever because of the high temperatures and severe aches it causes. While most infections get better after about 10 days, some cases require hospitalisation. Those who are infected a second time have a greater risk of ending up in the hospital.

After Jorge Munua lined the shelves of his family’s 11 supermarkets in the greater Buenos Aires area with about 7,000 cans of bug spray, they were sold within hours — despite a one-can-per-customer limit. Even vanilla extract, the main ingredient of the do-it-yourself alternative, flew off the shelves, he said.

“People are making their own home remedies because the truth is there is no repellent anywhere. I’ve called wholesalers, other supermarkets. As soon as stock arrives, there’s so much psychosis, it just flies off the shelves,” said Munua, commercial officer for supermarket chain El Abastecedor. “It’s just like what happened with hand sanitizer during the pandemic.”

Fed up with customers’ desperate pleas, shops across Buenos Aires have taken to posting signs outside their stores saying they don’t have any bug spray. On the online marketplace MercadoLibre, mosquito repellent is going for $20 a can, a more than 500% jump from its retail value, a shock even for inflation-battered Argentines grappling with consumer price increases that are now running at an annual pace of 276%.

On Monday, President Javier Milei’s government lifted restrictions on imports of mosquito repellent for 30 days, including looser inspection requirements by local health authorities. In his first TV interview last week, Health Minister Mario Russo said the benefits of the waiver would take effect “probably within the next two weeks.”

SC Johnson, whose mosquito repellent dominates 80% of the local market, saw a 300% jump in demand compared with the same period last year, which they described as “unprecedented” in a press release last week. They now plan to import more than 120,000 canisters of bug spray from Poland. On Tuesday, the company flew in 20,000 cans from Mexico to donate across the northern provinces, which are experiencing the most severe outbreaks coupled with some of the highest poverty rates.

In the meantime Russo, the health minister, recommended people wear light-coloured clothing, stick to long sleeves and “be careful with shorts.”

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