Spring rains mean summer bugs

SPOKANE – Spring rain and snowmelt are good for flowers, but also for mosquitoes, which could spread West Nile virus, say health officials, who are urging inland residents to remove standing water from their yards.

Washington remains one of the last states where the virus has not appeared in humans, but public health officials expect that to change.

“We’ve been expecting it for the last two years, but it hasn’t happened yet,” Spokane Regional Health District spokeswoman Julie Graham said. “Every season that passes, the odds continue to climb.”

The mosquito that carries the virus lives in the Northwest interior, and the virus has been found in birds and animals. But officials can’t say why the disease hasn’t yet spread to humans.

“We all expected it to reach us by now,” said David Hylski, an epidemiologist with the Panhandle Health District in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Long-sleeved clothing and repellent spray help deter mosquitoes, but removing areas where mosquitoes breed is one of the most effective ways of combating the disease, health officials say.

The insects breed in standing water, which is why the wet spring weather is causing concern, Graham said.

“Mosquitoes don’t need much more than a thimbleful of water to breed,” she said.

The bloodsucking insects reproduce in puddles, flower pot basins and old tires. Groundwater aquifers will be recharged by the high snowpack in the mountains, and higher water tables may result in standing water in farm fields and yards.

The health district frequently gets complaints from residents concerned about neighboring properties with old tires, which often trap water, but it has no power to force cleanup of such sites, Graham said.

The Spokane County Building and Planning Department can require residents to properly store old tires or other potential water collectors, said Dave Jensen, a senior land use planner. But the agency only responds to complaints, and lacks the resources to go out and look for trouble spots.

Last summer, 13 people and more than 100 horses, birds and a dog contracted the virus in Idaho, according to the state’s Department of Health and Welfare.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 80 percent of those infected with the virus never show any symptoms. But it can be fatal for a small percentage of those bitten by disease-carrying mosquitoes.

A Spokane County proposal to create a mosquito control district was rejected last year by the County Commission over concerns about giving officials authority to spray larvicides in standing water on private property. The agency has no plans to try again this year to create a mosquito control district, Graham said.

“It was pretty clear last year there wasn’t any sort of momentum to move forward,” Graham said. “Mosquito control districts are definitely perceived by people who do this for a living as beneficial, but they’re political hot potatoes.”

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