BY LYNN EDMONDS
Marine and environmental biologist Dr. James Cervino scoured the College Point Yacht Club for mosquitoes. He looked on the tops of boats, on the surface of a pond, and on the sides of bins and buckets. When he found one, dead or alive, he plucked it carefully with a pair of tweezers and put it in a test tube filled with 10 percent preservative solution.
Within the first few minutes, he found something very interesting: the “tiger stripes” typical of the Aedes mosquito, which can transmit the Zika virus, were present on multiple mosquitoes. The six alternating black and beige stripes were small, but clearly visible.
Within 30 minutes, he’d collected close to a dozen samples with the stripes.
College Point, which is near the water-as well as the Tallman Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, has always had the type of conditions that were attractive to mosquitoes. But some say it’s become even worse in recent years, and even especially this year. The reasons could be numerous: climate change and construction projects in the area that disturb marshland and unsettle the ecosystem and top the list.
Local resident Vina Didonato said the results of a warm spell in early April convinced her that “something different is going on” this year.
“The only way I could describe it is a sci-fi movie. There were literally clouds – picture Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” – that’s what the mosquitoes looked like,” she said.
Francine Goodman, another area resident, said the mosquito swarms that descended at dusk when she docked her boat were akin to the cyclones in “The Wizard of Oz” movie.
Now that the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects, is spreading across South and Central America, residents are worried that the biting insects could be more than a nuisance: they could be a health hazard. As to date, there are no known cases of the virus being transmitted by mosquitoes in the continental United States. But most experts agree there is the potential for that to happen, since Mosquitoes of the Aedes type can be found in the United States and has been documented here in Queens.
For every mosquito Cervino collected that resembled the Aedes type, he planned to send it to the lab for testing. He said the most accurate form of testing would be a form of analysis called DNA amplification.
It would involve heating up and breaking apart the DNA formation of the mosquito itself, and then placing that scrambled DNA next a DNA sample of the Zika virus for an ID match up.
If the Mosquito’s DNA contained the virus, it would be easy to match the two. Columbia University’s School of Public Health is currently undertaking such testing, Cervino said, and he hopes to submit his samples there.
But while Cervino was conducting his study with research assistance from the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute and private funds, State Sen.
Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who held a press conference on the matter last Thursday, argued that it was a no-brainer for the city to fund similar research and take more preventative measures.
“Because of the fact that we have a huge mosquito problem, [Zika’s] eventually going to come here,” he said.
“College Point was ground zero for the West Nile virus. It was first found here,” he added.
Avella said he wanted the city to move beyond their educational campaign about the risks of standing water and the free chlorine tablets and Off! mosquito spray they are distributing upon request to address ponding conditions on roads, in construction sites, and on abandoned properties.
“You have to physically go out, put some money into the budget, and fix the road problems where there is ponding,” he said.
Cervino said he wanted to see even more long-term planning.
“We’re living in a climate change world. Global warming is real and these pathogens thrive better in warmer extended seasons. The ice is melting. No matter what you hear, we’re faced with some serious issues related to sea level rise and increased pathogens in our local communities and we need to do more about it,” he said.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana