Virus Deaths Spur Mosquito-Control Efforts ; Relatively Few Mosquitos Pose Threat, but 11 Recent Fatalities Stir Action by States

Article excerpt

America's latest health threat is not carried by a bioterrorist but a mosquito.

So far this year, the so-called West Nile virus has spread farther and caused more fatalities than anthrax. It's an example, experts say, of how diseases have become globalized.

Thanks to increasing travel and trade, diseases as new as AIDS and as old as malaria are jumping continents and oceans faster than ever before.

That means that even developed countries, such as the United States, have to bolster their public-health infrastructure to meet the challenge. But the demand comes at a difficult time for cash- strapped states and localities, which traditionally have provided the first line of defense against mosquito-borne pathogens.

"Unfold a map and close your eyes and point: Virtually any place can be reached within 36 hours," says Madeline Drexler, author of "Secret Agents: the Menace of Emerging Infections." "And if you can get there, so can a virus.... West Nile virus shows how globalized infectious disease has become."

The virus is an unusual attention-getter. Found to be fatal only in very rare cases, it has nevertheless spread rapidly. Since its first detection in the US - three years ago in New York City - it has moved through the South, the Midwest, and possibly as far west as Colorado.

The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that even in areas where the virus is present, very few mosquitos carry it. Even then, fewer than 1 percent of people bitten by an infected mosquito get severely ill.

Nevertheless, 11 fatalities, mostly in Louisiana, have been attributed to the virus.

"This is a serious problem," says Lyle Petersen, deputy director for the CDC's division of vector-borne infectious diseases. "Should we be deathly afraid? Absolutely not."

Boosting bug control

States and localities are stepping up monitoring programs and mosquito-control. The monitoring programs, where state and local officials track dead birds and other animals for signs of the virus, appear to be tracking the spread of the pathogen fairly well. More questionable are mosquito-control programs.

Some states, such as Florida, Texas, and, ironically, Louisiana, have done a good job maintaining their control programs, Dr. Lyle says. Others have let their programs deteriorate as the threat of serious mosquito-borne diseases has receded in recent decades.

The reappearance of a serious threat comes at a bad time for budget-strapped states.

Louisiana, for example, last week announced it would have to go into temporary debt to finance a $3. …