BY RICHARD FASANELLA
The bell has rung for round two in the fight between West Nile virus and the residents of Queens. The Department of Health, bruised and battered from last year’s outbreak that claimed four lives in Queens, said this week they are ready to face and defeat the infected mosquitoes waiting for the warm weather to wake them from their winter slumber.
Last summer, the virus took everyone by surprise, however, city officials remain confident that this year will not bring the same kind of outbreak and that the elements of their response plan – based on last year’s battle plan — will effectively address the threat.
THE 2000 PLAN
Over the past several months, the DOH has been engaged in a planning effort to prepare not only for the possible re-emergence of the West Nile virus, but for a long-term comprehensive approach to preventing arthropod-borne diseases.
New York City Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Neal Cohen said the city Health Department has been working with state, local and federal agencies to implement a plan that controls the mosquito population while protecting the public from illness due to mosquito-borne infections.
The following results are of a door-to-door annonymous survey of a three square mile area targeting the neighborhoods of Auburndale, Linden Hill, Murray Hill and Whitestone.
- 677 persons tested
- 19 positive for previous West Nile virus infection.
- Estimate: between 533 and 1,903 people in the surveyed area were exposed to the virus.
Approximately $4.2 million has been secured by the Mayor and the City Council, for a surveillance and control plan to prevent and contain diseases, including West Nile virus, caused by mosquitoes and other insects. The city’s efforts will begin with pro-active surveillance to detect mosquitoes and birds infected with West Nile virus, including the use of sentinal chickens as early-warning indicators.
There will also be a citywide effort to eliminate potential mosquito breeding sites and extensive citywide larvicide applications beginning in April to prevent mosquito larvae from becoming adult mosquitoes.
Next, the plan calls for an enhanced surveillance system to detect human cases of the virus as early as possible.
Finally, Health Dept. officials said, they will use pesticides to spray by air if the mosquito population or a significant outbreak warrant the action.
MOVE THE WATER
The DOH’s plan calls for controlling the Queens mosquito population by reducing areas of standing water – which are known mosquito-breeding sites. In conjunction with other city agencies, the DOH is working to eliminate standing water in catch basins, empty lots, tire piles and other places.
Their plan will also apply larvicides in potential breeding grounds where water cannot be eliminated, as it was last year. However, the application of pesticides through aerial and ground spraying to reduce the adult mosquito population if West Nile virus activity will only-be used if a threat to human life develops because of the virus.
“Hopefully, if we can get to all the areas where the larvae exist, then maybe we won’t have to spray,” said Borough President Claire Shulman. “I know there has been a lot of fear in the community because some people feel the spraying harmed them. However, I believe the quick action of the City prevented many more people from getting sick.”
During last year’s outbreak, numerous Queens residents claimed that they suffered adverse effects from the malathion pesticide that was used to help reduce the adult mosquito population. As recently as last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was considering classifying malathion as a low-level carcinogen.
“The decision to spray is based on what we would view as a major threat,” said Cohen. “We would use an adulticide if necessary, but we have not made any decision with regard to choosing a pesticide. We want to select one with no adverse health impacts, and we would only use one that is EPA approved.”
During the mosquito season — from April to October — adult mosquitoes will be regularly trapped at sites throughout the five boroughs, and tested for the presence of West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne viruses.
Since several species of mosquitoes prefer to feed on birds, DOH will survey live birds and have a system of “sentinel” bird surveillance throughout the five boroughs. This will involve regularly drawing blood samples from live birds to help identify the presence of the virus before it infects humans.
DOH will supplement the medical surveillance systems already in place through several complementary systems, including improved physician reporting, active surveillance by medical specialists in infectious diseases and neurology, and better laboratory-based testing programs.
REACTING TO THE PLAN
A group of four city, state and federal officials from Queens are mounting a bi-partisan probe into the city’s handling of last year’s outbreak of the West Nile virus.
Christine Vartanian, chief of staff to Councilman Mike Abel, said that the forum will also provide a chance for a critical review of the current response plan.
FOR THE LATEST
- Call the Department of Health’s automated information line, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, at (212) 227-5269.
- An on-line update and e-forms for reporting stagnant water and sightings of dead birds is available at www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doh/html/wnv.
“Basically, there has been a lot of conflicting information in the media,” said Vartanian. “He [Abel] is hoping that this is an opportunity to clear up some of the confusion.”
“The bottom line is that we have received many complaints about the way the city conducted the spraying last year,” said Jordan Gould, spokesman for Congressman Gary Ackerman. “We haven’t made a decision yet about whether or not New York City acted appropriately last year, but we do have a lot of questions that have not been answered.”
“Since the outbreak last fall, we were approached by experts and constituents alike complaining about the spraying,” said Michael Mullen, a spokesman for Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin. “It’s been frustrating because we’ve had difficulty receiving answers to our questions. However, this forum will provide an opportunity for members of the community to voice their concerns.”
The panel of politicians is scheduled to meet at the Flushing Branch of the Queensborough Public Library at 10 a.m. on March 31.
Ed DeCosmo, a spokesman for State Senator Frank Padavan said that beyond looking for answers concerning last year’s outbreak the Senator is also seeking more funding to help enact the response plan proposed by health officials.
“Senator Padavan has requested $2.5 million to support both the state and local efforts,” said DeCosmo. “Prevention is the key to ensuring that the mosquito population is under control and this money will go a long way to achieving that goal.”
During the week, federal officials announced that more funding has been secured to support the City and State Health Department plans.
Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Joe Crowley will each receive an additional $200,000 for surveillance and response to the West Nile encephalitis. The Centers for Disease Control is releasing the funding to supplement existing CDC grants for New York.
Agricultural Secretary Dan Glickman said this week that an additional $375,000 will be allocated by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service to pay for surveillance and diagnostic testing of the virus.
WRITTEN IN THE BLOOD
Shulman hosted a meeting with representatives from the DOH on March 20 to discuss the results of the blood sampling survey conducted last October to help determine the impact of West Nile virus on residents of northern Queens.
The DOH, working in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), conducted a door-to-door survey in a three square mile area targeting the neighborhoods of Auburndale, Linden Hill, Murray Hill and Whitestone, where one of the highest rates of West Nile virus-related illness had been found. Households were selected at random, and a total of 677 persons agreed to participate anonymously, by completing interviews and volunteering blood samples.
While helicopters provided aerial pesticide spraying, trucks like this one conducted the ground assault through Queens neighborhoods during last year’s outbreak.
Tribune Photo By Tamara Hartman
“Nineteen anonymous blood samples tested positive for previous infection with West Nile virus,” said Farzad Mostashari, M.D., DOH medical epidemiologist and coordinator of the survey. “Statistically speaking, the range of infection with West Nile virus may be as low as 1.2 percent to as high as 4.1 percent. We estimate that somewhere between 533 and 1,903 persons in the surveyed area in northern Queens were likely to have been exposed.”
Cohen said that of those in the surveyed area that were infected with the virus, most either had no symptoms or experienced mild illness. Dr. Cohen added that he was not surprised by the findings, saying that the results were similar to a comparable survey conducted after the 1996 outbreak of West Nile encephalitis in Bucharest, Romania.
COMMUNITY MEMBERS REACT
One member of Community Board 14, questioned Dr. Cohen as to what measures are being taken to address the mosquito problem that has “plagued the Rockaways for the past 10 years.”
Cohen said that although the salt marsh mosquitoes are not carriers of West Nile, the area will not be ignored by the Health Department’s plan.
“We are going to seek permits to use the larvicides in Jamaica Bay,” said Cohen. “We have in the past targeted certain areas, but we will have a more intense program this year.”
WEST NILE VIRUS
According to the New York City Department of Health, West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord). The virus is named after the West Nile region of Uganda, where the virus was first isolated in 1937. West Nile virus is most commonly found in Africa, West Asia and the Middle East.
Mosquitoes, primarily bird-feeding species, are the main carriers of West Nile virus. The natural transmission of the virus involves a bird-mosquito cycle. Mosquitoes carrying the disease bite and infect birds, especially crows and sparrows. Other mosquitoes then bite the newly-infected birds, thus transferring the virus to an ever-widening pool.