With the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention warning of one of the largest West Nile virus outbreaks in United States history, many cities are busy spraying for the mosquitoes that can spread the illness.
The city of Athens is no different.
“I think there is some confusion, maybe, that we are not spraying,” Public Works Director James Rich said Thursday. “We have been on the same program and, like last year, we have worked to cover the entire city and are trying to be as diligent as possible.”
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management changed regulations on mosquito control. However, Rich said the city has been spraying a majority of the summer.
The new regulations — intended to limit the use of pesticide except when needed — prevents city employees from spraying the way they used to. They now have to conduct a mosquito landing count to determine if there are enough mosquitoes in an area before they can spray. If so, they may only spray that specified area. If the city does not adhere to the regulations, it can be fined. City workers also had to undergo a certification program before they could spray.
In Athens, city workers are taking landing counts each day, Rich said. The landing counts let the department know when and where there is mosquito activity.
“In periods where we have had extreme drought, if we don’t hit the landing count numbers, then we don’t spray,” he said.
For example, the city did not spray for approximately two weeks in early July because of extreme drought and because the area did not meet the required landing count numbers.
Public Works has, however, sprayed the entire month of August.
“We are trying our best to take care of the mosquitoes,” said Lewis Turner, the Public Works employee who typically drives the mosquito truck. Turner said Public Works is being especially diligent since news of the West Nile outbreak.
“We are trying to stay on top of it,” he said.
Lower lying areas, especially around drainage ditches, are usually worse than others when it comes to mosquitoes, Rich said.
“They can become breeding grounds, and we try to make sure we pay particular attention to that,” he said.
The city suggests the following to prevent mosquitoes on private property:
• Dispose of old buckets, cans, bottles and jars that can hold water;
• Repair leaky pipes and unclog drains and gutters;
• Change water in birdbaths and pet watering dishes frequently and scrub them each time;
• Properly discard unused tires;
• Turn wheelbarrows, tubs and wading pools upside down when not in use;
• Keep weeds, vines and grass trimmed;
• Fill tree holes with sand or mortar so water can’t collect in them.
Dr. Lyle Peterson of the CDC said the U.S. is in the midst of one of the largest West Nile virus outbreaks ever seen in the states.
So far, 1,118 illnesses have been reported, about half of them in Texas. In an average year, fewer than 300 cases are reported by mid-August. There also have been 41 deaths this year, the CDC reported.
Cases seem to be accelerating, with about 400 reported in just the last week.
Experts think the mild winter, early spring and very hot summer helped stimulate mosquito breeding and, in turn, the spread of the virus. Mosquitoes pick up the virus from birds they bite and then pass it on to people.
West Nile virus was first diagnosed in Uganda in 1937, but no cases were reported in the U.S. until 1999 in New York. The virus gradually spread across the country.
It peaked in 2002 and 2003, when severe illnesses reached nearly 3,000 and deaths surpassed 260. Last year was mild, with fewer than 700 cases.
Only about 1 in 5 infected people get sick. Early symptoms can include fever, headache and body aches. Some people recover in a matter of days. However, 1 in 150 people infected will develop severe symptoms, including neck stiffness, disorientation, coma and paralysis.
Illnesses this year have been reported in 38 states, but the bulk of them have been in Texas, with a concentration in the Dallas area.
Reports of probable cases in Alabama range from eight to 12, and have been reported in Montgomery, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Jefferson and Baldwin counties.
Residents who which to report a mosquito problem area can call the city at 256-233-8747.