West Nile on The Rise

West Nile Virus, which is spread through mosquitoes, is becoming more prevalent in the United States according to the CDC. Photo by Thinkstock.

CDC study show diseases from mosquitoes increasing

By Sam Catanzaro

While many people associate mosquito-borne illnesses with tropical countries, a recent report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that illnesses from mosquito, tick and flea bites have tripled in the U.S. since 2004. The issue is a pertinent one for Venice due to the still water that collects in boats in the Venice Canals and Ballona Wetlands.

Take the case of Dr. Jerome Helman, a retired physician who lives in Venice. In April 2016, Helman went for a morning run, and upon returning home started to feel a bit off. Soon he knew something was wrong.

“By afternoon, I could not even stand up due to signs of cerebellar failure: weakness, loss of voice and ataxia.  After tests and MRIs, no definitive diagnosis was evident,” Helman said. “Three months later I obtained a West Nile Virus titer.” 

Two years later, Helman is still recovering from neurological complications associated with West Nile Virus, and his case highlights an issue facing Venice and the surrounding area. Record numbers of mosquitos have been recorded in the freshwater wetlands adjacent to Venice, and last year Los Angeles County saw 17 deaths from West Nile Virus, more than double than the previous year.  

Disease cases from infected mosquitoes, ticks and fleas have tripled in 13 years. Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A large, still body can be a breeding source for mosquitoes and data has shown that there is evidence of the mosquito-borne disease, such as the West Nile Virus in the general area around Venice, including Santa Monica and Marina del Rey,” stated the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Office of Communications & Public Affairs.

West Nile Virus incubates in birds. Mosquitoes who feed on these infected birds spread the virus to humans and other animals during subsequent blood meals. Approximately 80 percent of people who contract West Nile Virus will show no symptoms, according to the CDC.

The 20 percent of people who develop symptoms experience nausea, vomiting, skin rash, diarrhea and swollen lymph glands. In less than one percent of cases, people bitten by an infected mosquito will develop West Nile neuroinvasive disease whose symptoms include tremors, coma, convulsions and paralysis.

“Zika, West Nile, Lyme, and chikungunya – a growing list of diseases caused by the bite of an infected mosquito, tick, or flea – have confronted the U.S. in recent years, making a lot of people sick and we don’t know what will threaten Americans next,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D. “Our Nation’s first lines of defense are state and local health departments and vector control organizations, and we must continue to enhance our investment in their ability to fight against these diseases.

According to Lyle Petersen, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, the CDC’s role in fighting these diseases is to, “support state and local health agencies responsible for detecting and responding to these diseases and controlling the mosquitoes.”

The Venice Canals provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes because of the still water that collects in the bottom of boats like the one pictured. Photo by Sam Catanzaro.

In Venice, the agency responsible for controlling these diseases is The Los Angeles County West Vector & Vector-Borne Disease Control District who provides management of the standing water areas in the Venice area to prevent mosquito breeding. Robert Saviskas, Executive Director of Los Angeles County West Vector Control, says that West Nile Virus has always been present in Venice but in recent years there have been record numbers of reported cases.

“West Nile Virus (WNV) is endemic throughout Los Angeles County and has been for a number of years.  That means that WNV is constantly present in this geographic area. Human cases of WNV in Los Angeles County have gone up and down over the last five years with 2015 being the highest with 300 [cases],” Saviskas said. “It is always safest to apply insect repellents if you are planning to be outside between dusk and dawn.”

Los Angeles West Vector recommends wearing an insect repellant that is between 5 percent and 30 percent DEET (N,N, diethyl-meta-toluamide) but there are alternative repellents containing picaridin, IR3535 or citronella. 

In addition to wearing insect repellant, Venice residents are encouraged to check their yard for still water. Even a small bucket of water is large enough for mosquitoes to breed in.

“In addition to the standing water in these canals, anything that can hold any amount of water for more than five days can be a potential breeding source for mosquitoes. So, all of us should look for, and eliminate these potential sources in our own yards,” stated Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Dr. Helman, the Venice resident who contracted West Nile Virus, thinks that LA West Vector Control needs to do more than just warn residents about the dangers of the virus.

“The LA Vector Control District needs oversight and must have better access to the public and its standing water,” Helman said. “Local aerial spraying must commence for the protection of the public.”

For more information about West Nile Virus and mosquitos visit www.lawestvector.org. To file a service request to get rid of mosquitos on your property call Los Angeles West Vector’s mosquito hotline: 310.915.7370.