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Mosquito control: Leaders say cost is low compared to lives at stake

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat The City of Natchez’s mosquito sprayer lets out a fog of chemicals Friday evening as Natchez Public Works employee Charles Marsaw treats standing water along Creek Bend Road with larvacide tablets to kill larvae before they turn into mosquitoes that could transmit the West Nile virus.

By Rod Guajardo, Vershal Hogan and Lindsey Shelton

VIDALIA — Some Miss-Lou municipalities spent big bucks this mosquito season to fight small insects that carried a potentially deadly West Nile Virus.

But local leaders and those who fought through the virus this year say it’s a small price tag to put on protecting lives of citizens in the community.

And those that don’t currently have a mosquito abatement program said they are mindful of the potential dangers of letting the mosquitos fly unswatted, but that the funds were simply not available this fiscal year.

With 374 cases of West Nile Virus reported in both Mississippi and Louisiana so far this year, the season proved to be a learning experience on how to prepare and fight through an overwhelming mosquito infestation.

And for one Vidalia resident, it took getting bit and fighting the virus to usher in a rude awakening of the importance of protecting her family from the pesky mosquitos.

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Natchez Public Works employee Charles Marsaw drives along Arrowhead Drive Friday evening as the city’s mosquito sprayer emits a fog of chemicals to kill the pests.

Wake-up call

A typical day for Pattie Reed Morris revolves around being outside in her yard, which goes hand in hand with swatting away the occasional mosquito.

But it wasn’t until one July afternoon when Morris came across something in her yard that troubled her about the mosquitos she had been trying to keep away.

“I was walking back from my neighbor’s house and I saw a dead bird on the ground,” Morris said. “I didn’t really know what that meant, and I went on not thinking about it.

“A few weeks later I was tired and achy all the time.”

The West Nile Virus is a mosquito-borne disease that — in its worst neuro-invasive form — can cause encephalitis, a brain inflammation. The infected mosquitoes pass the virus to birds, animals and people.

Luckily, Morris contracted an asymptomatic form of the virus, which is the milder case that results in nausea, fever, headache and muscle weakness.

With that bite Morris joined three other Concordia Parish residents that, as of Friday, had contracted West Nile. The latest local victim was added to the state’s tally just last week.

Two of those cases were neuro-invasive and the most recent was West Nile fever, which results in flu-like symptoms.

“I think I got kind of a rude awakening, and it helped raise the awareness that there was a problem in town that needed to be addressed,” Morris said. “I’m out in my yard all the time, and I guess I just didn’t think it would happen to me.

“I’m very grateful and blessed that mine was very mild.”

And even though she admits the ordeal made her somewhat complacent on protecting herself in the future, Morris said it’s the exact opposite with protecting her family.

“I can’t get it again if I already got it, but I am making sure I’m spraying my grandkids and telling all my neighbors and family what to do,” Morris said. “It made us aware that there was situation, an epidemic, that we had to deal with.”

Catching the virus

The City of Vidalia has spent approximately $10,000 so far this mosquito season, which included the purchase of chemicals, larvicide and the gasoline to fuel the “fight the bite” pick-up truck and the city’s spraying machine.

“Most people don’t spray because it’s too expensive, but there are things you can do to save money,” Street and Sanitation Superintendent Lee Staggs said. “But even that price is extremely low compared to the hospital bills of the people that get the virus.”

Staggs said most municipalities that don’t already have mosquito spraying programs — and even some that do — want to purchase the “ready to use” chemicals that come packaged in 2-gallon containers.

By purchasing a different chemical and mixing it with 55 gallons of mineral oil, Staggs said the city gets more bang for its buck.

Before each spraying session, which the city does for three hours, three times a week, the chemicals are loaded into the calibrated spraying machine that emits a fine chemical spray.

Designated routes for the truck are meticulously calculated, Staggs said, to ensure that every house, yard and field is covered — either through a direct spray or by predicting wind patterns to carry the mist.

“We’ll call the Natchez airport and look at the wind patterns each time before we spray, because if you’re not careful the chemical will just blow away, and that’s money down the drain,” Staggs said. “I remember running around as a kid and seeing the spray trucks, so the city’s been spraying for as long as I can remember.

“It’s our responsibility to protect our citizens, and this is just another service we can offer to do that.”

The mosquitos that spread West Nile breed in small, nutrient-rich pools of water that can collect in a spare tire or in a backyard bucket, so larvicide tablets, Staggs said, are another tool the city uses to kill the mosquito larva.

The tablets create a thick chemical layer on the top of the water that the mosquito larva is unable to penetrate to begin breathing.

“A mosquito can’t survive without water,” Staggs said. “If we take away the water, we take away the mosquito.”

Those tablets are ordered at the beginning of the season with the chemical, Staggs said, but an extra supply is never too far away.

The spraying and tablets are part of the city’s mosquito abatement program, but this year brought some new experiences for Staggs and his crew.

The East Baton Rouge mosquito abatement program sent Staggs multiple traps that were placed in different quadrants throughout the city to determine which areas contained the mosquitos infected with the virus.

Samples sent to Louisiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory since early August have continually come back positive for the virus in several parts of the city, but Staggs said all the samples sent in since September have been negative.

“We’ll continue setting out the traps and sending them in for a few more weeks until the end of mosquito season,” Staggs said. “We had never done any testing before, but we wanted to do whatever we could do to keep our residents safe.

“I’ve learned more about mosquitos this season than ever before.”

Team mosquito

The City of Natchez has budgeted $10,000 for mosquito control supplies in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That is $7,000 more than was budgeted for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

Public Works Supervisor Justin Dollar said the budget is increasing because the city has to purchase a lot more chemicals in the coming year, whereas it was able to use leftover chemicals from the previous year during the current fiscal year.

Public works, Dollar said, has increased its spraying to four to five days a week instead of two to three days because of the threat of West Nile.

The crew, he said, has areas they spray regularly and particularly concentrate on ditches and other areas that hold water. Public works also sprays at the request of city residents who report mosquito infestations.

The city recently requested a proposal from Vector Disease Control in Brandon for a basic mosquito plan to a fully integrated year-round program.

The city’s options would include a surveillance package, which would entail the company setting traps weekly for six months to determine what species of mosquitoes are in the city, if they carry West Nile and where they are concentrated.

Mayor Butch Brown said the city has now formed an “in-house team” comprised of Duncan Park Golf Course Superintendent Greg Brooking and Ed Field.

Brown said Brooking, whose father is an entomologist, is qualified to set mosquito traps. Field, Brown said, is very knowledgeable about mosquito control.

For now, he said, the city will use that team to aid in mosquito control and consider hiring a third-party mosquito control company in the future.

Better late than never

The Town of Ferriday began spraying this week after dusting off its spraying machine and hiring a certified sprayer on a contract basis.

Mayor Gene Allen said the town had done some spraying in previous years and decided to get a late jump on this mosquito season after seeing the high number of reported West Nile Virus cases in the area.

“We don’t know if (Tropical Storm) Isaac blew them here or what, but we’re infested right now,” Allen said. “We want to make sure that we do something to stop the mosquitos.”

The town hired Betty Faulkenberry on a contract basis to handle all chemical ordering and begin spraying with the town’s equipment.

“She’s coordinated our spraying before and has all the routes mapped out ready to go,” Allen said. “We’ll be spraying three times a week throughout the different parts of the city.”

Allen said he had not received the bill from the order on the first batch of chemical spray, but also said the cost was worth potentially saving lives.

“We intend to spray every year whenever we’re infested with mosquitos,” Allen said. “It is a big cost for the chemicals, but it’s worth it to protect the citizens of the community.

“Sometimes the means outweigh the cost.”

No bug tax

With mosquito season nearing the end and a tight budget for the current fiscal year, Police Jury President Melvin Ferrington said the parish won’t be spraying any this year.

After several jury members inquired about the parish’s spraying program at an August meeting, Ferrington said he instructed his crews prepare its spraying machine, which had been siting unused for several years, to examine its condition.

“The machine has been sitting there for about eight years, but we had our mechanics go through everything, and it’s in good shape,” Ferrington said. “The chemicals are what we need, and that’s going to be the most expensive thing.

“Operating the machine and running the truck won’t be a great expense, but the chemicals will be.”

At the August meeting, some jurors inquired as to where the money used to come from for the spraying program. Ferrington answered saying that the jury had previously budgeted for the program until it became too costly to operate.

In April 2004, parish voters defeated a 4.2-mill, 10-year mosquito abatement tax that was intended to fully fund a spraying program.

Ferrington said the police jury would closely examine each spending item when the board begins preparing its budget in November for the next fiscal year.

“We’re going to have to make room for it in the budget because I won’t ask the citizens for more taxes,” Ferrington said. “We’re going to have to figure something out because the mosquitos are bad.”

With such a wide range of areas to cover within the parish, Ferrington said the police jury’s program is a whole different ball game — and a more costly one — than for other cities and towns.

“The parish is so big and so spread out that we’d have to figure out a good system to spray our subdivisions and small communities,” Ferrington said. “It’s a little different than a town, because they’re all piled in one location and the parish is spread out wide.

“It’s very costly to do, but if we can keep one person safe and keep them from getting bit, it’ll be worth what we spent.”

Free larvicide

Adams County Administrator Joe Murray said a mosquito-spraying company recently came in and did a vendor’s presentation to the county board of supervisors about its services, offering to trap and test mosquitoes for West Nile Virus and develop a plan for the county based on those results.

The board agreed to allow the company to take the initial free steps, but Murray said no formal plans to commit to the program currently exist.

Adams County Road Manager Robbie Dollar said the road department hasn’t spent any money on mosquito larvicide this year because it already had a large stockpile when he took the road manager’s position in January.

The department is down to its last 50-pound bag, however, because public response has been very positive to the county’s offer of free larvicide to any resident who wants it, and Dollar said more will have to be ordered soon.

Those costs will ultimately be determined by which vendor the county chooses, he said.