Monday, April 24, 2017
Zika virus could be ‘major concern’ in Orange County in 5-8 years without proper mosquito abatement, grand jury says
The spread of the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects, could be a “major concern” locally within five to eight years, according to an Orange County grand jury report.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, the report noted, the government agency charged with mosquito abatement needs to do more to eradicate breeding grounds to prevent future Zika transmission.
The report, released April 18, commended the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District’s efforts in “fighting an uphill battle” with limited resources and in shifting its focus to proactive communications with residents on how to eliminate mosquito infestations. But it also stated that the district’s board did not collect or spend enough money to address the looming Zika threat, hasn’t allocated enough resources toward public communication and are reluctant to spray pesticides that have proven effective in killing mosquitoes.
District Manager Rick Howard suggested that Zika could become a regional problem even sooner than the grand jury stated. But he also noted that the district has in the past two years significantly ramped up public education efforts, funding them in part with federal grants meant to combat the spread of the virus.
Orange County has experienced an epidemic of mosquito-borne illnesses in recent years. Between 2014 and 2015, at least 395 people in the county were infected with the West Nile Virus, resulting in at least 15 deaths, according to the report. That infection rate decreased substantially last year, but district officials said they are preparing for the possibility of a rebound in the number of cases due to the heavy winter rainfall, which has led to substantial increases in the local mosquito population.
There were 24 identified cases of Zika in Orange County last year, but all contracted the disease outside the county, according to the report. However, if the two species of mosquito capable of spreading the virus continue their predicted geographical expansion, the report said it soon could be problematic for the county. Specimens of those mosquito types have been identified in 12 cities in Orange County, but none have yet tested positive for Zika.
UC Riverside professor of entomology Bill Walton said he expects people to contract Zika from mosquitoes in Orange County even sooner than the grand jury noted. He emphasized the importance of public education campaigns, but said the threat could emerge even from a single home that fails to eliminate standing water that helps mosquitoes breed.
Any full-blown outbreak, he added, could be difficult to contain.
“If Zika becomes transmitted locally, then all bets are off,” Walton said. “You really need the public to cooperate and be informed… At some point it boils down to how much of a social push can we make for people who aren’t compliant.”
The report called public communication and education campaigns the “key to successful intervention in mosquito-borne virus control,” but noted that only half of the county’s residents are aware that the district is available to help with mosquito abatement, according to a 2014 telephone survey.
To pay for more and better public communications in advance of a Zika threat, the grand jury recommended increasing one of the two property tax levies that fund the district to its maximum allowable rate. Last year, the district collected at 95 percent of the allowed amount, leaving $316,000 on the table.
Howard pointed out that the district already had increased that levy by 34 percent over the past two years and said it now has spent $1 million in revenues to attack the spread of West Nile Virus and mosquitoes capable of carrying Zika. He said the grand jury finished its report before the district received $225,000 in federal funding to help fight the spread of Zika – funding which he said will fully pay for the district’s public outreach team, which goes door to door to educate on how to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds.
He said questions of whether the district would further increase its funding would be left to the board to decide.
The grand jury also called on the county to fund a project to map the region’s storm-drain system, where stagnant water can become a significant mosquito breeding ground. The goal would be to locate “undocumented” storm drains and identify aging infrastructure where repair could reduce the threat. An OC Health Care Agency spokeswoman said the agency eventually will provide a formal response to the grand jury’s request through the Board of Supervisors. Howard said most cities have already mapped their storm drains.
Though the grand jury made no recommendations regarding the aerial spraying of pesticides, it declared the controversial technique to be harmless to humans, pets and the environment. It also noted that the district’s board has disregarded staff recommendations to use the method.
“The district reports that aerial spraying on a larger scale is relatively cheap and has been very effective elsewhere,” the report stated. “Despite significant scientific and experiential evidence that aerial spraying is effective and safe, the regional public and the (district’s) Board of Trustees are reluctant to support the use of aerial spraying.”
The question of whether the district should use pesticides has been met with resistance in recent years from local activists, triggering a board vote last year that rejected a proposal to give the district’s manager unilateral power to order sprays over residential neighborhoods. Critics of the board’s decision said at the time that it would limit the district’s ability to act quickly during a large outbreak of West Nile Virus.
The board still has the power to order the pesticide to be sprayed and district spokeswoman Mary-Joy Coburn said it is “a tool in our toolbox that is used when all ground-based options have become ineffective.” She noted that last week the district used a helicopter to distribute naturally-occurring bacteria over the county’s wetlands to kill mosquito larvae to “get ahead of the issue.” Spraying pesticides, on the other hand, is used to kill fully-grown mosquitoes.
Coburn recently said that the district is developing closer partnerships with cities to spread the message to residents of how to control mosquito populations, mostly by asking people to eliminate any untreated, standing water around their homes.
The two non-native species that can spread Zika are the yellow fever mosquitoes, which are brown with white markings, and Asian tiger mosquitoes, which are black with white stripes on their abdomens and legs. Both bite during the day.
Zika can cause babies born to infected pregnant women to have abnormally small heads and brain damage.
April 18, 2017
The Orange County Register
By Jordan Graham