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Amid Controversy, Mosquito Sprayers Gear Up On Insect-Borne Diseases
(from March 7, 2003)

Government and mosquito sprayers are gearing up for the 2003 spray season. On Monday, March 3, 2003, scientists and government officials from across the country convened for the annual American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) meeting. The meeting is focused on several issues, including West Nile virus (WNv), a mosquito-borne disease that has resulted in heightened fear of mosquitoes throughout the country. Participants gathered to discuss WNv along other insect-borne diseases that may appear, along with how to prevent and control them.

As the weather warms, many communities will be dealing with the issue of mosquito control and WNv. While recognizing the importance of WNv as a public health threat, experts say it is important to realize the limited threat that mosquitoes pose. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service addressed the public's heightened fear of mosquitoes based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Service states, "Contrary to media descriptions of 'the deadly West Nile virus,' WNv is rarely fatal in humans. Less than one percent of people who acquire the disease will experience severe illness. Within this small proportion, the fatality rate is about 3-15%." Dr. Brian Rogers, health authority in Ft. Worth, TX, says the chances of becoming seriously ill or dying from West Nile virus are "extremely minimal."

Agencies addressing WNv and other insect-borne diseases, such as dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever and encephalitis, must decide the best way to protect the public. In this decision-making process, it is important to realize the limited efficacy of pesticides in controlling mosquitoes. A large part of this has to do with the inability, especially in an urban environment, to hit target insects with typical ground spraying from trucks or by aerial application. In addition, pesticides can pose a grave threat to residents. The pesticides most commonly used across the country are neurotoxic and some have been linked to cancer. Children with respiratory problems, such as asthma, are particularly vulnerable to these pesticides and will suffer disproportionately from exposure. Environmental contamination is yet another concern. Brian Boerner, director of Environmental Management in Ft. Worth, says, The spraying of chemicals also has the potential of contaminating our waterways, killing the beneficial fish and organisms that feed on mosquito larva, adding harmful volatile organic chemicals to the atmosphere-a precursor chemical to ozone formation-and providing a potential inhalation or ingestion hazard to residents who are in affected areas shortly after spraying occurs."

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Beyond Pesticides recommends an integrated system that includes community education, prevention, monitoring, habitat modification, biological controls and bacterial larvicides. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides' West Nile Virus and Mosquito Management Program Page, which includes a Public Health Mosquito Management Strategy, a memo to public health officials, and a Backyard Mosquito Management factsheet. Contact Beyond Pesticides for a copy of the West Nile Virus Organizing Manual ($10 ppd).