Little Mosquito, Big Bite

Aug. 10, 2012, 10:06 a.m.

Mosquitoes used to seem like just pesky insects whose irritating bites left behind redness, itching and swelling.

But it's a mistake to disregard the increasing danger of being bitten by mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus, a disease that can be transmitted to humans and animals.

West Nile was first identified in Uganda on the African continent in 1937. Since the summer of 1999, however, cases have been reported in the United States, including Texas. Mosquitoes most often pick up the disease when they feed on infected birds.

North Texas is experiencing a major outbreak of the disease this year, with a record number of reported cases. As of Thursday, Tarrant County had 131 reported cases, with one death, a Euless woman in her 60s with other medical issues, according to Tarrant County Public Health.

Dallas County had recorded 162 cases and nine deaths, Dallas County Health and Human Services said.

There also has been one death in Denton County, which has had 59 cases reported, according to the Denton County Health Department.

Regional, state and local officials have emphasized public education as an effective assault on the problem, urging residents to avoid mosquito bites and eliminate standing water where more of the insects can hatch rapidly.

But whether spraying insecticides in breeding areas is effective enough to outweigh the potential health concerns has caused a buzz.

Dallas is using trucks to spray selected high-risk areas.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has asked city, county, state and federal representatives to meet today and consider what other measures might be warranted, including aerial spraying and bringing in additional spraying trucks.

Euless and Benbrook have sprayed in affected areas, while Arlington officials have not decided whether spraying would be a useful tool.

Fort Worth "does not have a spraying program -- we haven't sprayed in Fort Worth for more than 20 years," said spokesman Bill Begley. "Our experts and experience tell us it is not an effective way to address the issues of mosquitoes."

Begley said prevention "is more effective in controlling both the mosquito population and the residents' risk of exposure."

The health department promotes a "4 Ds" program:

Dusk/dawn: Stay indoors at these times, when mosquitoes are most active.

Dress: Wear long sleeves and long pants when outside. For extra protection, spray thin clothing with repellent.

DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide): Look for this ingredient in insect repellent. Follow label instructions, and always wear repellent when outdoors.

Drain: Remove standing water in yards and neighborhoods, including in old tires, flower pots and clogged rain gutters. These are mosquito breeding spots.

People 50 and older with other health issues should take special precautions because they are more at risk of developing serious symptoms of the disease.

Most people who are infected will not notice any type of illness, the health department says.

About 20 percent will develop mild West Nile fever with symptoms of fever, headache, body aches, occasionally a skin rash on the trunk of the body and swollen lymph glands.

The department warns that anyone with signs or symptoms of encephalitis or meningitis (fever, stiff neck and back, vomiting, headache, drowsiness) should seek medical care immediately.

No one ever said summers in Texas would be easy.

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