West Nile program terminated

COVINGTON - A West Nile Virus surveillance program for the East Metro Health District - comprised of Newton, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties - has been terminated.

Funding for the program has been cut, mainly due to decreasing vulnerability to the virus among birds and humans, according a spokesman for the district.

"When West Nile first arrived, no one had ever been exposed to it before and many more people were vulnerable to it than are now," spokesman Vernon Goins said. "Resident immunity has risen to the point that the virus cannot make the same impact it did before. Fewer people are as vulnerable as once were. The population that is most vulnerable, those with suppressed immune systems, is the same group that suffers from most other environmental diseases. Monitoring programs don't exist for other environmental diseases, and now West Nile is included in that group."

However, a mosquito expert said funding is being cut for mosquito surveillance and

prevention programs on the state and federal levels due to tight budgets, and noted that with the recent rainfall creating standing water habitats, the mosquito population, and therefore the chances of exposure to the virus, will likely increase.

"From my perspective, mosquito control is an important and deserved service to the public," said Elmer Gray, a public health Extension specialist with the University of Georgia.

While only about one out of 150 people exposed to the virus become sick, West Nile can cause encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.

"Only a small percentage of people become sick, but to those people, it's a bad situation and it takes a long time to recover from. It's a very serious disease," Gray said. "I'm not aware of this declining human susceptibility."

However, bird populations have become more immune to the virus, so mosquitoes are less likely to pick up the virus and transmit it to humans, he said.

In years past, a surveillance team went to each of the 23 local governments in the East Metro Health District to educate the public and set up mosquito traps.

The mosquitoes caught were sent to UGA for testing and if positive for the virus, local governments were notified and given recommendations on how to suppress the mosquito population.

"Usually, this meant applying larvicide in bodies of water within a half-mile radius of the subject trap and distributing literature to any households or businesses that were within the area," Goins said. "If the number of mosquitoes was extremely high and the incidence of West Nile virus was deemed to be above a triggering level, we recommended that the governing body contract with a mosquito spraying company to knock down the population quickly. This happened only once during the seven years the program ran; a park in Snellville met the criteria for this recommendation in 2003."

The program was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local boards of health at about $62,000 in 2006 and 2007. That dwindled to $30,000 in grant money to Gwinnett County in 2008 to transition the program to completion.

According to Goins, there have been three West Nile cases in the district in the last three years, all in 2007, and no deaths.

But Gray said the public should be aware of high nuisance populations this summer.

"Emptying out standing water needs to be done every time it rains, not just once a month or once a summer. Anything that will hold water will grow mosquitoes," he said.

Wearing insect repellent and light colored, loose-fitting clothes, particularly at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active, will also lessen the chances of being bitten, he said.

The city of Covington is doing its part to help keep the mosquito population at bay, spraying four days per week from 8 to 11 p.m. The spraying started in early May and will continue through the end of September, City Manager Steve Horton said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.