Byline: Thomas B. Pfankuch, Times-Union staff writer
TALLAHASSEE -- A mosquito emergency in Florida and the threat of deadly diseases carried by the bugs has exposed weaknesses in the state's mosquito control program.
In all, 16 of Florida's 67 counties do not have a mosquito control program, including six counties where the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses is so great the state has issued a medical alert. Yesterday, state health officials extended the alert to include 28 counties.
Further, the state's mosquito control program has a small budget that does not allow much help for counties that don't spray.
Just a few months ago, officials considered eliminating the Florida mosquito control program as part of an effort to trim the state's budget, said T. Wayne Gale, director of the state mosquito program. No action was taken, however, after proponents argued that the program was still needed.
Florida's entire approach to mosquito control, which encourages but does not force counties to establish their own mosquito control programs, could be rethought in the wake of the ongoing emergency.
"They [county programs] are grossly underfunded, and we're scrambling to help those people," Gale said.
Gale said yesterday he will ask the Legislature next year to bolster his annual budget, used to spray insecticides in underserved rural areas. But such requests in previous years have not led to more appropriations, he said.
The state hoped to begin aerial spraying in Madison County last night, but rain threatened to keep its 1946 DC-3 grounded. Last week, the Department of Agriculture sprayed insecticides on 140,000 acres in Wakulla County near Tallahassee and intends to spray at least four more counties this week, Gale said. The state has leased two other planes from Lee County to bolster spraying efforts, which typically cost about $1 per acre.
So far this summer, a 9-year-old boy in Okaloosa County has died from the mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis, and an elderly Madison County man was sickened by the West Nile virus, also carried by mosquitoes.
Additionally, at least 50 horses and hundreds of birds have died from the West Nile virus, said April Crowley, a state Health Department spokeswoman. And yesterday, a health official said a horse in Jacksonville was found to be stricken with the virus, which can also kill humans.
State health officials added 11 counties -- including Duval, Baker, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns -- to the 17 it had already included in the medical alert.
According to the state's mosquito control law, each Florida county is on its own to fight the proliferation of mosquitoes. The state has only $2 million set aside to help bolster the fight against the biting bugs should an emergency arise, Gale said.
Already this year, that money has been spent to aid counties where there is little or no local mosquito control, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture. Earlier this week, Gov. Jeb Bush gave tentative approval for the department to spend $500,000 more.
This summer has been difficult for mosquito control officials across the state. Three separate mosquito problems have converged to cause an emergency.
First, heavy rains from Hurricane Allison in June flooded many areas that had been in drought for two years, freeing millions of mosquito eggs that can remain alive for years in dry mud. An ongoing mosquito baby boom resulted. …