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    A blood feud

    In the constant battle against bugs, officials put effort into killing mosquitoes before they grow from the larvae state.

    [Times photo: Fred Victorin]
    One way officials monitor the bug population is to test standing water for bug larvae. Allen Peck, with Pinellas County Mosquito Control, said areas like this drainage ditch behind Derby Lane race track can produce thousands of bugs that can infest up to 20 miles.

    By CHRISTINA JEWETT

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 3, 2001


    The hiss of the insecticide spray drowns out the buzz of the mosquitoes.

    Then there is silence, left in the wake of one of the 13 orange Pinellas County Mosquito Control trucks.

    The sound is music to the ears of residents throughout Tampa Bay who have grown weary of the buzz.

    Genocide with insecticide is only 10 percent of the battle, said Allen Peck, chief mosquito control officer for Pinellas County. The real battle is in the coastal salt marshes, where recent rains have provided the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

    "They come out in the thousands in infested areas and for up to 20 miles around," Peck said.

    Peck and other mosquito control officers measure the population explosion very simply. They stand amid a swarm and count the number of mosquitoes that land on them in a minute.

    Last week Peck counted about 20 to 30 per minute in the Feather Sound area. Much like Pasco County Mosquito Control employees, Pinellas officers concentrate on killing larvae that live in the water.

    "They're like a captive audience in the water," said Dana Land, a Pinellas County Mosquito Control crew chief. "Also the aquatic chemicals are much safer."

    If there is an itchier man in Pinellas County than Peck, it must be Van Williams, who said he's never seen an infestation like the one that follows him into his car, pool and shower. He's lived in St. Petersburg for 20 years, and in Florida all his life.

    "There's nothing worse than trying to sleep with a mosquito in your ear," he said.

    The county's Mosquito Control trucks have sprayed in Williams' neighborhood and helicopters have treated coastal areas. Another helicopter is currently being equipped to combat mosquitoes.

    Albeit pesky, the coastal mosquitoes don't carry encephalitis -- the St. Louis or equine variety -- or the West Nile virus. Neither do "container breeders," the kind of mosquito that multiplies in residential areas. It only takes a quarter inch of water and a week for 100 such mosquitoes to hatch.

    Kim Feagley, operation supervisor for Pasco County Mosquito Control, said it's up to individuals to eradicate container breeders since they don't come out during the evening hours when insecticide trucks spray.

    "When they're not coming from the coast they're breeding in tires, gutters and bird baths -- anything that will hold water, usually in the shade," Feagley said. "They need to be emptied."

    While salt marsh mosquitoes and container breeders carry heart worms to dogs, the mosquitoes known to carry the encephalitis have not shown up in large numbers yet. Hillsborough County epidemiologist Jylmarie Kintz investigates human illness cases that resemble encephalitis from bug-borne origins.

    County health officials throughout Florida watch for mosquito-carried disease. Since the mosquitoes that carry encephalitis prefer birds to humans, each Florida county has flocks of "sentinel chickens" that are tested weekly for traces of encephalitis. There are seven flocks of eight chickens in Pinellas County alone.

    "If there is a concern for illness based on chicken flocks, the Department of Health in Tallahassee would issue an alert so residents would be aware to wear long sleeves and pants and to avoid outdoor activity during mosquito biting times -- dusk or dawn," Kintz said.

    State and county officials are especially vigilant for the West Nile virus which killed eight New York residents last summer. The disease has been traced as far south as North Carolina where it was detected in a crow.

    Horses are currently at risk in the Panhandle, where 20 have contracted a mosquito-borne strain of encephalitis that kills half the horses it infects. State Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson is urging horse owners to vaccinate horses and watch for signs of nervous system damage. The disease is passed from birds to mosquitoes to horses and usually does not affect humans.

    In the bay area, weather conditions provide a breeding ground for carriers of St. Louis encephalitis, which causes cold or flu-like symptoms. The disease has caused 55 deaths between 1959 and 1962 and 11 deaths in 1990.

    Land, of Pinellas County Mosquito Control, said very young and very old people, as well as those with immune deficiencies, are most likely to be infected with St. Louis -- or any other variety -- of encephalitis. Some feel no effects of the St. Louis strain.

    And some people are less likely than others to be bitten. The only way mosquitoes can tell the difference between the person and the chair they are sitting on is by the carbon dioxide they give off while breathing. The more carbon dioxide the person gives off, the more attractive he or she is to mosquitoes.

    "Holding your breath won't work," Land said. Carbon dioxide also filters through the skin.

    There's also the factor of body odor, which varies by individual in mosquito-luring properties.

    Land said avoiding mosquito bites is a matter of using repellent and staying indoors an hour before and after dusk.

    Van Williams might not agree.

    "Nothing seems to keep them off," he said. "Everybody seems pretty frustrated right now."

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