DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean, fears are growing about the Zika virus. This mosquito-borne virus is believed to cause birth defects in infants. NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story of the culprit, Aedes aegypti.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Aedes aegypti is dangerous to humans, in part, because it thrives among people.
AUDREY LENHART: This is an urban mosquito. It tends to breed in close proximity to human habitations.
BEAUBIEN: That's Audrey Lenhart, an entomologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She's now part of the CDC's emergency response to the Zika outbreak. Her earlier work looked at how Aedes aegypti spreads dengue in Latin America and what can be done to control it.
LENHART: It's a tricky mosquito to control. It doesn't bite at night like the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, so bed nets are not necessarily useful in this scenario. They rest both inside and outside houses. There's not an easy way to target the adult mosquito. That is the important one that transmits the disease.
BEAUBIEN: Some other mosquitoes are content to breed in rural swamps and feed off deer. But Aedes aegypti likes human blood and piles of garbage.
MARTEN EDWARDS: We do a good job, as us humans, at providing them with their larval habitat, and they know that.
BEAUBIEN: Marten Edwards, who studies mosquito and tick-borne diseases at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., says of the hundreds of different kinds of mosquitoes that exist, Aedes aegypti, in particular, love us.
EDWARDS: They thrive on our blood. They like to live in small containers of water, and we're great at providing that in our trash around the house, in our tires, in our bottle caps and so they have adapted to our ways pretty well.
BEAUBIEN: Aedes aegypti has become one of the dominant mosquitoes in the tropics. Entomologists say that its habitat is expanding, but currently, its range extends from the southern United States to northern Argentina in the Americas. It prospers across sub-Saharan Africa, in India and in warmer, wetter parts of Southeast Asia. Basically, Aedes aegypti hangs out in a wide band around the equator.
In general, female mosquitoes bite people or other warm-blooded creatures because they need the blood to hatch their eggs. And while most are content to get some blood and get on with reproduction, Aedes aegypti is what's known as a sip feeder. It takes lots of little sips of blood from lots of people. Rebekah Kading, an entomologist at Colorado State University says Aedes aegypti has developed a lot of habits that make it really good at spreading disease.
REBEKAH KADING: It's domesticated. It's breeding around human habitations. It's feeding on people almost exclusively. It doesn't fly very far (laughter), so it's just, you know, circulating virus in an area.
BEAUBIEN: And Aedes aegypti spreads more than just Zika. It's also commonly known as the yellow fever mosquito because it's involved in those outbreaks. It also is the primary transmitter of dengue and chikungunya.
All of the researchers interviewed for this story said the best way to get rid of Aedes aegypti is to stop making our homes so hospitable to them. Dump out any containers that have even a little standing water in the bottom. But given that Aedes aegypti larvae can blossom in even a few drops of water, making them unwelcome may not be easy.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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