Residents urged to help prevent spread of virus

June 22, 2000|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

The late spring rains that have gladdened Maryland farmers and gardeners pose a nagging worry for public health officials: Every puddle, pond and soggy spot could nurture the mosquitoes that spread a dangerous new disease.

To help prevent the spread of the West Nile virus, a potentially deadly form of encephalitis, Gov. Parris N. Glendening urged Marylanders yesterday to search their back yards once or twice a week to eliminate stagnant water where mosquitoes breed.

No cases of the virus have been reported in Maryland, and no new cases have been reported in the United States this summer, the governor said.

"We are not suggesting that West Nile virus poses a serious threat here in Maryland at this time," Glendening said at a news conference held in the lush back yard of Eastport residents Tim and Shira Dowling. "We do not want to create a sense of alarm. We can prevent it becoming a serious problem later this summer by slowing the growth of the mosquito population now."

West Nile virus, an import from Africa, Europe and the Middle East, is primarily a disease of wild birds and livestock but can be transmitted to people if a mosquito bites an infected bird and then bites a human. The disease causes brain inflammation, which can be fatal in severe cases.

The virus was discovered on this side of the Atlantic for the first time last year, sickening 62 people and killing seven in New York. Crows are the most common carriers of the disease, and last summer one dead crow with the virus was found in Baltimore. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the virus survived the winter in wild bird flocks in New York, and new outbreaks are possible this summer.

The state departments of health and mental hygiene, agriculture and natural resources are spending about $300,000 to track the virus and prevent its spread. The state has set up a hot line for citizens to report wild bird deaths and will test birds suspected of harboring the virus.

And 14 flocks of "sentinel chickens" are posted at key sites around the state. Their blood will be tested every two weeks for signs of the disease, said Cyrus Lesser, chief of mosquito control for the Agriculture Department.

Glendening said some communities have asked for stepped-up mosquito spraying as a preventive measure, but the Maryland Pesticide Council points out that spraying can make people sick.

"We do not believe that is appropriate or necessary now, nor is it always the safe and balanced thing to do," Glendening said. "We may do some more harm with excessive pesticides."

The risk is greatest in urban areas along the coast, Lesser said. The only mosquito known to transmit the infection, the northern house mosquito, "is intimately associated with people throughout its range. It's in and around cities and polluted water," Lesser said.

The most common breeding spots are birdbaths, fishponds, wheelbarrows, uncovered garbage cans, clogged rain gutters, tarpaulins covering pools, hot tubs and grills, and the saucers beneath outdoor flowerpots.

"This is true for all of our homes," said Glendening, who checked his family home in College Park at the weekend and found pools of water with "little critters breeding" in an opened garbage can and a clogged gutter.

Controlling mosquitoes

To prevent the spread of mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus, state mosquito control experts are asking Marylanders to:

Change water in birdbaths, watering troughs and pets' outdoor bowls two or three times a week.

Make sure water is flowing in ponds and water gardens. Stock them with fish, which eat mosquito larvae.

Make sure swimming pool filters are running and pools are chlorinated. Don't let water accumulate on pool or hot tub covers.

Unclog rain gutters to prevent water from accumulating.

Empty saucers and trays under outdoor potted plants.

Cover rain barrels with screens.

Store wheelbarrows upside down.

Store buckets and cans indoors.

Store unused tires indoors or take them to a state tire recycling station for disposal.

Check outdoor gear like grills, even if covered, for puddles of water.

If you have standing water in a drainage ditch, call the local mosquito control office listed in the phone book. Officers will treat the area with bacteria that are harmless to everything but mosquito larvae.

Some garden stores sell the same bacteria in briquette form, which you can use to treat stubborn puddles.

Don't handle dead birds. Report them to the state hot line: 1-888-584-3110.

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