Published on 05/09/01

Mosquitos Key to Preventing West Nile

After spending more than $30 million to combat the mosquitos that carry West Nile virus, New Yorkers have learned the value of a mosquito control program. Georgia officials are hoping to learn from their experiences.

West Nile virus can cause encephalitis or inflammation of the brain. As it makes its way southward, Georgians need to act now to prevent its spread.

Georgia's Ready

"Georgia is as prepared for the West Nile Virus as any U.S. state," said Paul Williams, consequence management specialist for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. "We can deal with this disease if it arrives."

The virus had a huge economic impact in the Northeast, but shouldn't here. "It's highly unlikely that we won't get it here," Williams said. But Georgia's preparedness should lessen its impact.

In coastal and marshy areas where mosquito populations are the greatest, Georgia has one of the best mosquito control programs in the country.

Photo:Leonard Mustermann

Asian Tiger mosquitos are one of the most prevelant types of mosquitos in Georgia. Mosquito control is very important in stopping the spread of disease.

Mosquito Control Paramount

"If the virus shows up in Georgia, the best way to control the spread is to enact a mosquito control program," said Elmer Gray, an entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The program would include spraying to kill adult mosquitos when they're most active -– at dawn and dusk. That would also help protect beneficial insects and the state's valuable bee industry, since those are the times when bees are less active.

A Georgia task force will monitor the situation. The West Nile Virus Working Group includes representatives from GEMA, the Georgia Department of Public Health, the UGA CAES, the UGA School of Veterinary Medicine, the Georgia Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources and many others.

The UGA SVM and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study are conducting a two-pronged monitoring system. They are studying both live birds and dead birds in the state to see if they are carrying the virus.

Dead Crows, Early Warning

"The best evidence of the virus is dead crows," said David Stallknect, a UGA SVM veterinarian. "It's like an early warning system."

More than 50 bird species are known to have died from the virus. But it's most prevalent in crows and blue jays. If you see a dead crow or blue jay, call the county health department. Don't try to collect it yourself.

If the bird tests positive, the health department will notify you. If it doesn't test positive for West Nile, it will be tested for other possible diseases, and you will get a report in several weeks.

"We can't test all dead birds, but we are monitoring as many cases as we can," Stallknect said. So far, West Nile virus hasn't been found in any of the more than 200 birds tested in Georgia. One crow in North Carolina, however, was identified as exposed to West Nile.

West Nile's Journey

The virus first appeared in the United States in 1999. Later that year, seven of 62 people infected in New York City died. Last year, two out of 21 infected people died.

Gray said many healthy people, though, probably just never got sick enough to see a doctor. "Officials feel many more people have been exposed than the clinical cases diagnosed," he said.

Most people infected with West Nile will have no symptoms or may have a mild flu-like illness with a fever, headache and body aches. In some cases, particularly the elderly, the virus can cause serious illness or death.

West Nile is spread by mosquitos that get the virus from infected birds. It's transmitted by both the Culex mosquito, which usually bites at dusk, and the Asian tiger mosquito, which bites during the day.

Both species are in all Georgia counties. The odds of getting any illness from a mosquito bite in Georgia, however, are very low.

For more information on West Nile, visit:

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.