Be extra wary of mosquito bites as heat lingers

OKEECHOBEE — The Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County reported Wednesday, Oct. 17, that its sentinel chickens in communities near Lake Okeechobee have tested positive for West Nile virus. Confirmation of the virus’s presence in Pahokee followed earlier reports that it had been found in Belle Glade and Jupiter Farms, as well.

Although there have been no reports of West Nile or any other mosquito-borne illnesses in Okeechobee, Hendry or Glades counties, the DOH is warning residents of the Lake O region that until the weather cools off and mosquitoes cease breeding at their frenetic summer pace, people should be taking greater precautions than usual to avoid mosquito bites — and to reduce the pests’ opportunities to infest their homes’ outdoor spaces.

“We are constantly monitoring for mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus, chikungunya, and St. Louis encephalitis. We haven’t had a confirmed human case of West Nile virus since 2011,” said county Health Director Dr. Alina Alonso. “With these continued confirmations from the state lab of the presence of West Nile virus, it is a good reminder for all to take the necessary preventive measures.”

DOH-Palm Beach has sentinel chicken flocks strategically placed from Delray Beach to Jupiter and west in Belle Glade and Pahokee. Blood samples are taken from these chickens weekly to be tested in the Florida State Laboratory for the presence of mosquito-borne viruses. (Chickens do not contract the disease but can carry the virus in their blood.) The past few years, Zika virus has been the prominently circulating mosquito-borne disease, with one confirmed case in Palm Beach, but the DOH has also seen human cases of dengue fever and chikungunya.

Other counties in the region

In Okeechobee County, there hasn’t been a sentinel chicken program in a decade or so because there was no mosquito abatement program during that time. Emergency

Management Director Mitch Smeykal explained: “We do things a little bit different. Certain species of mosquitoes carry those particular diseases; not all mosquito species carry disease, or certain diseases. So the two target species that we’re looking for are … the Asian tiger stripe mosquitoes, is their common name. We’ve been taking mosquitoes from the BG-Sentinel traps to the Bronson Animal Health Laboratory in Kissimmeee, and they test them … to see whether we have any disease.

“Now, we have not had any confirmed cases of West Nile, chikungunya, Zika, any of the mosquito-borne viruses since we had the one Zika case, and it was an acquired travel case, two years ago,” he continued. “We have had some Eastern equine encephalitis this year, in the northern end of the county, but that was very early in the season. And after we did a couple of application treatments up there, that area of concern burned out. We haven’t had any more cases to my knowledge documented in the county since June or July.”

Mr. Smeykal said Okeechobee County does now have a minimal mosquito program. “We finally got approved by the state last year. The board issued the contract to Clarke Environmental for our mosquito trapping. We do trapping on our own, too.” He added that Clarke has any equipment the county might need used for treatments.

“But the big thing is the mosquito surveillance, and we watch the numbers. Those tests go on weekly, and our trap numbers have been very low. But we’ve been very dry, so that’s kind of common with that.”

He noted that people in Okeechobee should keep an eye out for unusual bird mortality. “If people start seeing dead birds, that’s usually the first indication that you have West Nile, unless you get somebody who tests positive for a human case. But if homeowners and that are starting to see dead birds, especially crows, ones that are just falling dead on the ground, that’s an indication where they either need to call us or the Department of Agriculture or Fish and Wildlife and let them know that, and they can actually do a necropsy on those birds.”

Mosquito spraying programs in place

Down south of the Big Lake, the public information officer for the DOH in Hendry and Glades counties, Brenda Barnes, says that “due to funding constraints, Hendry and Glades currently do not have a sentinel chicken program.” But, she added, “there have not been any confirmed cases of mosquito-borne illnesses in Hendry and Glades counties.”

Hendry County, which also uses Clarke Environmental for mosquito spraying, recently announced aerial spraying sweeps would be taking place. It posts notices regarding those on its Facebook page. Clewiston does its own mosquito trapping and monitoring also, but the city’s report last week said winds were too high to conduct any, so treatments were suspended until Mosquito Surveillance Technician Tim Burke could resume trapping and provide new data, when conditions allowed.

In Glades County, the City of Moore Haven provides spraying inside the city limits. Buckhead Ridge has a mosquito control district, which does its own mosquito spraying program. Other parts of Glades County does not have any mosquito control programs.
Advice from professionals

The Florida DOH advises that to protect against mosquito bites, people should drain any standing water from around the home or business, as mosquitoes leave their eggs in the smallest water reservoir. All are also advised to make sure windows and doors are screened properly and in good condition to keep flying pests out. When outside, use an insect repellent that contains DEET or Picardin, and wear lightweight long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks, especially at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.

For homeowners who think they might have more serious mosquito infestations on their property or nearby, there are many pest control companies that can help.

One is nationwide franchisor Mosquito Joe. Operations Manager Chase Holcomb from the company’s West Palm Beach location explained that mosquitoes have been thriving in western Palm Beach County this year because “we have had a couple of spans with just a lot of rainfall, and obviously mosquitoes are breeding in sitting water, especially out there. There are a lot of those ditches for drainage, and they just hold a ton of water,” he pointed out.
“There’s a thing called mosquito pressure, and really my business partner knows a little bit more about mosquito pressure, but he tracks it, and the month of October, the pressure is very high right now. So it should start to decline if we get less rain. We’re thinking next month, there should be a lot less activity.”

Mr. Holcomb said the company offers treatment plans or single applications for problem areas or events such as an outdoor party, for example. “What we do is we come out and fog the property every three weeks. Mosquitoes generally nest in the bushes about 2 to 3 feet above the ground, they detect you thermally and by your carbon dioxide, and the females use your blood in the egg-laying process, so we try to kill all the female adult mosquitoes and to halt that breeding process.”

He and partner Torben Nielsen operate five Mosquito Joe franchises covering much of south-central Florida, including Pahokee, Belle Glade, Clewiston, Moore Haven, LaBelle and Cape Coral. “Our service will get rid of 90 percent of your mosquitoes,” he said, noting that it costs $75 minimum per spray for up to a half-acre. “We try to do the first two sprays a week apart, but it generally does take about two or three sprays to get it under control. It’s very effective,” Mr. Holcomb added.

He pointed out a couple of the pests’ favorite homestead hiding places for homeowners’ benefit: “They like a cool, dark environment, so they’re up under overhangs, with sitting water in old tires. Wheelbarrows are a big culprit, and any kind of buckets. I recommend people check their gutters, to see if there’s any pine needles or anything blocking them and holding water up in the gutters, because they can literally breed and then drop down generally where you’re sitting on your back porch.”

Mr. Holcomb said the reports of a few disease cases shouldn’t cause too much concern.

“I wouldn’t get too alarmed, but it’s just getting rid of sitting water and trying not to get bit.”

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