ANNAPOLIS – County health departments statewide are revving up for mosquito season this summer, preparing to fend off bugs carrying the deadly West Nile virus.
Their first task is to spread the word that mosquitoes carrying the virus will not be deterred by the dry winter; a fact proven by the infected dead bird found recently in Virginia.
“Marylanders need to recognize that West Nile virus is now an epidemic,” said Department of Agriculture spokesman Don Vandrey. “It is permanently here. It is not going to go away.”
The swarms of mosquitoes carrying the West Nile Virus – which causes encephalitis or infection of the brain – led to the death of one Marylander last year. Five others were infected. Nationwide, 9 died and 66 people were infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The record-breaking warm weather and discovery of a West Nile virus- positive dead crow in Arlington, Va., this month has prompted talk of the state’s plan to deal with the mosquito-borne virus.
The bugs are still a concern, despite the drought, because they do not need much water to breed, state health officers said Wednesday. The state’s precipitation levels are 10 inches below normal and in some areas off more than 50 percent since last September, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The West Nile virus is transferred only by mosquitoes, which become infected with the agent when they bite infected birds or other animals. The bugs then pass the virus to people and animals.
Though some mosquito populations dwindle in dry weather, the Culex species and others that carry the West Nile Virus, continue to breed.
They thrive in discarded tires, tin cans, ceramic pots and other water- holding containers because they need only a quarter-inch of standing water to lay eggs.
Marylanders “can be proactive by tipping over those breeding sites in their yards,” said State Public Health Veterinarian Tracy DuVernoy. “If we can eliminate the breeding sites we can cut down on the number of mosquitoes.”
The virus often is first detected in an area when dead birds, often crows, are found. State health officials then conduct laboratory tests on the birds to determine whether West Nile virus is present.
About 260 of the 1,200 dead birds tested in Maryland last summer had West Nile virus.
More than half of the virus-positive birds were found in Baltimore.
At a press conference Wednesday, Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson asked people gathered in a city park to stay indoors at dawn and dusk, wear long sleeves, and apply insect repellent.
In Montgomery County, which has seen a fair number of infected birds, the health department will continue to hold community meetings this year and remind residents not to create insect breeding areas. The county also sends out volunteers to tell people how to protect themselves from West Nile.
Other less-affected counties are following the state’s West Nile virus prevention plan by encouraging residents to report dead birds. The Maryland Department of Agriculture will spray mosquito repellant in any area where two or more virus-positive dead crows or a person is infected.
The state’s call center for West Nile prevention will return May 1, after a hiatus this winter. Residents who find dead birds are asked to call 866-866- CROW or fill out a report on the Department of Health and Human Hygiene’s Web site, which is www.dhmh.state.md.us. Until the call center opens, local health departments will handle the cases and remind residents to empty outside containers. “The concern is that people will become complacent,” Vandrey said. “It is amazing how easy it is for water to collect and how long it will last.” – 30 – CNS 4/17/02