On Sept. 17, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 29 new cases of West Nile virus, bringing the state’s yearly total to 169 cases and four deaths. The virus has spread across a large portion of the state, though no cases have been confirmed in Lafayette County.
As both the rate of infection and media exposure steadily increase, along with the emergence of the virus, its symptoms and the state’s mosquito control efforts remain unfamiliar to many residents, with hyperbole surrounding the virus’s potential spread possibly outweighing critical insight into eradicating infections.
Eighty percent of humans infected with WNV never experience symptoms. The virus is transmitted via mosquitoes, with the very old and the very young most commonly contracting serious cases.
Mississippi is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of cases reported, with more than 20 in the past month alone. Dr. Paul Byers, deputy epidemiologist with the state health department, said that “we’re just at the beginning of September. We’re in the most significant time of the year for us to get cases reported.”
The CDC and the state’s advice to individuals is primarily to wear clothing which prevents mosquito bites and to use bug spray, though the efficacy of the former measure is debatable in my experience.
From a larger policy perspective, counties and municipalities rely on mosquito control companies to spray areas, particularly those with reported cases of infection. This mosquito spraying raises environmental and political issues, as some oppose the spraying in terms of its potential health hazards, while municipalities and counties attempt to provide funding for spraying in times of financial duress in the face of pressure from many residents.
Hinds County District Supervisor Kenneth Stokes said that spraying “is a life or death issue. Most of the supervisors live in Jackson, and the city has a spraying program. But what about those who live outside of Jackson? Anything the county can do to make sure citizens are safe, we need to do it.”
Some people of Jackson County feel similarly, employing MMCI (Mississippi Mosquito Control Incorporated) to spray the entire area by running more than 40 spraying routes each week. The company uses a combination of spray trucks and aerial spraying, which occurs six days a week in peak WNV season and increases if a mosquito in the area tests positive for the virus.
Are the fiscal and environmental costs of these measures commensurate with their benefits? The EPA oversees the use of chemicals in mosquito control measures and found that “pesticides that can be used for mosquito control have been judged by the EPA not to pose an unreasonable risk to human health.”
Basically, people with existing health problems are most vulnerable to the effects of these chemical measures, which, interestingly, is the group most commonly affected by WNV. Also at greater risk are those with the task of spraying areas.
All this is not to assert that spraying is an ineffective or unnecessary measure of combating WNV.
What is most important is careful consideration of the costs and benefits (both short and long-term) of such a control system, for both the environment and the general public are currently positioned as the beneficiaries of these efforts. How many people are being protected as a direct result of these measures? Also essential is ensuring fair access to mosquito control resources and education regarding virus prevention for all the state’s residents, should such measures be proven effective.
Meghan Holmes is a second-year graduate southern studies student from Arab, Alabama. You can follow her @styrofoamcup.
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