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    Mosquito spraying starts in Panhandle to halt virus

    People are asked to stay indoors as a DC-3 sweeps over at night to kill mosquitoes that can spread West Nile virus.

    By WES ALLISON

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 26, 2001


    Florida officials began fighting back against West Nile virus on Wednesday, starting nighttime pesticide spraying in populated areas and in mosquito breeding grounds in the first of four Panhandle counties.

    They also are trying to determine which of the area's 65 types of mosquitoes are most likely to carry or spread the disease, which could help them better control its spread.

    The Liberty and Wakulla county commissions have formally asked the state Department of Agriculture to spray, and spraying in Wakulla was to start Wednesday evening, said Steven Rutz, director of the division of agricultural environmental services at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

    During the next week, the state also plans to spray in Liberty, Jefferson and Madison counties, the latter county being where a 73-year-old mechanic apparently was infected last week with West Nile. Spraying may extend to the rest of 14 North Florida counties that have been placed under a West Nile medical alert, Rutz said.

    The virus, which can cause encephalitis, has not been found in Central or Southwest Florida.

    West Nile is carried by birds and spread by mosquitoes. It is native to parts of Africa and the Middle East, and was first discovered in North America just two summers ago, when it killed nine people in the New York City area.

    The Agriculture Department will spray with Dibrom, also known as Naled, which has been used for years to control mosquitoes. It is used in tiny amounts, about two-thirds of an ounce per acre, and will be applied with a state-owned DC-3 normally used to spray for dog flies on Panhandle beaches in the late summer and fall.

    People are encouraged to stay indoors during the spraying. Pets and other animals can stay outside. Rutz said spraying will begin around populated areas, especially in areas where the virus has been found in dead birds or sick horses.

    "You try to create a several-mile buffer around those areas," Rutz said. "The mosquitoes we're talking about don't travel very far."

    State Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson has asked Gov. Jeb Bush for extra money to pay for more spraying. A decision is expected soon, Rutz said.

    Health officials also are concerned about another mosquito-borne virus, eastern equine encephalitis, which can be deadly to humans and horses. It is found in Florida most summers and was recently discovered in North Florida.

    The best indication of the presence of West Nile in a community is a preponderance of dead birds, especially blue jays or crows. Floridians have responded aggressively to the state Health Department's call to report all dead birds.

    "We're getting almost 200 reports a day of dead birds, and we're testing a subsample of that," said Dr. Steven Wiersma, an epidemiologist with the Department of Health.

    Most don't have West Nile. As of Wednesday afternoon, the virus had been found in 21 birds, he said. All but two were found in the 14-county alert area: a blue jay in Oklaloosa County and a chicken, kept by the Health Department to monitor mosquito-borne diseases, in Jacksonville.

    Meanwhile, Seymore Carruthers of the Madison County town of Sirmans remained in critical condition Wednesday at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. Although all the test results aren't in, health officials suspect he has West Nile.

    In most people, the virus causes flu-like symptoms and then disappears. But in the elderly, sick or others with a weak immune system, it can progress to encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. This can cause seizures, paralysis, even death.

    "I think people should just realize there is an increased risk and should take precautions," Wiersma said. "I certainly don't think they should lock themselves in their houses.

    "We're still talking about an extremely rare condition."

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