Residents urged avoid mosquito bites

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 29, 2001

News Editor

Death by a mosquito bite may have once sounded almost ridiculous, but now health officials are getting more and more concerned about the disease-carrying blood-sucking insects.

Lately the news has been full of warnings about Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus (WNV) and it’s no laughing matter anymore. The Alabama Department of Public Health is urging residents of south and central Alabama to take measures to avoid mosquito bites.

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"EEE is the most severe of the mosquito-borne encephalitis viruses in the nation," said Dr. Donald Williamson, state health officer. "It is much greater that the highly publicized West Nile Virus."

EEE is a viral disease spread my mosquitoes. EEE infection can cause a range of illnesses in humans.

"The good news is that it would probably take a thousand mosquito bites to receive one that may involve a disease agent, so the true risk is very minimal," said Dr. J.P. Lofgren, state epidemiologist.

Even so, since EEE is an acute illness, which can lead to coma and death in one-third of cases and serious neurologic sequelae in another one-third, it is important to avoid exposure to mosquitoes once virus activity is confirmed in an area, Lofgren said.

West Nile Virus is a flavivirus commonly found in Africa, West Asia and the Middle East. Like EEE, mosquitoes transmit the virus.

Dr. Bill Johnston, state public health veterinarian, said the term "West Nile" seems to cause more anxiety in the public because it is a foreign, exotic virus that is new to the United States. Even though the virus sounds more exotic, Johnston said it does not mean it is as dangerous as other viruses sometimes carried by mosquitoes in Alabama.

At least nine horse deaths in Alabama, including one death in nearby Covington County, have been attributed to EEE and officials with two dozen agencies are monitoring for further evidence of the virus and possibly the appearance of WNV. Other cases have been identified in Dale and Russell counties in Alabama.

The EEE virus has a complex life cycle involving birds and a specific type of mosquito, Culiseta melanura that lives in marshes and swamps. These mosquitoes feed only on birds; they do not feed on humans and other mammals. In rare cases, however, the virus can escape from it marsh habitat in other mosquitoes that feed on both birds and mammals (including horses and humans).

"EEE is not known to be transmitted from one horse to another or from horses to people, since the virus does not reach high enough levels in the blood to be infectious," Johnston said. "While horses cannot give the disease to people, illness in domestic animals can alert us to the presence of disease-carrying mosquitoes. This should prompt residents to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites."

Locally, there have been no cases of EEE or WNV. Sonny Williford and John McKeller of the Pike County Health Department are keeping a close eye on dead crows in Pike County.

"Right now we are looking more at dead crows," Williford said. "The mosquitoes bite the birds and the birds die. We see it there before we see it anywhere else."

Williford said McKeller has sent in two crows to be tested for EEE and WNV, but they haven’t received any word yet.

"I feel like since we haven’t heard anything the birds were okay," Williford said. "If they had been infected I think we would have heard back immediately."

Williford said if any Pike County residents find a dead crow, to call the Pike County Health Department and he or McKeller would come out and ship the bird to be tested.

"We have the correct containers to put it in to ship it off and have it tested," he said.

A little closer to home in Crenshaw County, Dr. Steve Barron, a local veterinarian, recently saw what he suspected to be EEE in a horse.

"I euthanized a horse in Crenshaw County last week," Barron said. "I thought she has EEE and I had to send her off to be tested."

Barron said EEE affects the central nervous system of the horses. Although symptoms vary, he said some of the signs of EEE are wobbling, weakness, an inability to stand and sometimes the animal can become comatose.

Neither EEE nor WNV have been officially identified in Pike County, but Johnston said people should not get a false sense of security.

"Just because it hasn’t been identified doesn’t mean we don’t have it," he said. "The birds and mosquitoes didn’t just skip Pike County."

Even though not cases of EEE or WNV have been identified in Pike County, people should still avoid the biting insects, and unfortunately there are more this year to avoid than in years past.

There is a larger population of mosquitoes this year, not only because of the early spring rains, but also because of the drought condition for the last few years.

"Over the past few years we’ve had a terrific drought," Johnston said. "During the drought years a few mosquitoes hatched out and other eggs remained dormant. Each year more eggs were laid and because there was no rain the mosquitoes didn’t hatch out and we have had a build up of eggs.

"This year we got a good deal of rain in the spring and all of those eggs that have been lying dormant are hatching out. That is one reason the mosquito population is so high this year."

Johnston said in some cases, like the flood water mosquitoes in Florida, eggs can lie dormant for 15 years. But he said mosquitoes, like the ones in Pike County, usually only lie dormant for about five years.