DeKalb, Fulton send up first West Nile alerts of the season

Like a sunburn after a cookout, mosquitoes are part of summer. And residents in DeKalb County earlier this week found mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus living in neighborhoods throughout the county.

But they aren’t alone. State public health officials said mosquito traps in Fulton County and coastal Chatham County also reported finding mosquitoes with the virus. Only five counties around the state test for the virus.

West Nile is the leading mosquito-borne disease in the continental U.S. The threat usually increases about the time school buses return to the roads and it stays that way through September.

About one in every five people infected with the virus show symptoms, usually similar to the flu, said Dr. Rosmarie Kelly, a public health entomologist with the Georgia Department of Public Health. But officials say about one in 150 people will develop a serious illness that is sometimes fatal, due to brain or spinal cord swelling.

As of Monday, DeKalb workers had visited 800 homes to warn people about the disease, said DeKalb health spokesman Eric Nickens. Staff walked 80 properties with homeowners to assess whether they have places that could be good for laying eggs.

“Mosquitoes that breed,” Nickens said, “they don’t go far from where they are born.”

READ | Homemade mosquito repellent = hogwash

For years, DeKalb has been the worst for West Nile in Georgia. Officials say part of the reason is DeKalb's water and sewer system, which has been ignored to the point of being overburdened.

“The older the infrastructure, the higher likelihood you have for broken pipes or anything along the lines that mosquitoes have to lay their larvae in,” Nickens said.

Credit: DeKalb County Board of Health

Credit: DeKalb County Board of Health

There have been no human cases reported in Georgia so far this year. Last year, 34 people in Georgia were found to have the virus. A Dunwoody woman in her 90s died from the disease.

“If we get no human cases, it’ll be the first time since 2001,” Kelly said. “I suspect we probably will have human cases, but I also suspect it’ll be a low human case (rate).”

For those in Cobb and Gwinnett counties buzzing with worry, sorry. Officials from both counties said they don’t test mosquitoes in part because of a lack of funding, but Cobb’s health department spokeswoman Valerie Crow said they have two part-time mosquito techs who investigate resident complaints.

Kelly, an entomologist, said the state sets weekly traps in all 159 counties to count the species as a way to predict public health issues, but most of what the state does is education.

The West Nile programs in DeKalb and Fulton started about two decades ago when the first stateside case of the disease was confirmed in New York. The only other places in Georgia that test traps for West Nile are Chatham County in the Savannah area; Lowndes County, which sits on the Florida border about 140 miles from Macon; and Glynn County, which is where Brunswick and St. Simons Island are located.

The disease is most common in urban areas with dense populations, so why would those outside the state’s largest city or suburbs test?

“Chatham County has a large tourism industry,” Kelly said. “If they didn’t do mosquito control, they’d have a small tourism industry.”

From 2018 | West Nile — What to know about the virus

Kelly thinks this won’t be a bad year for the disease in Georgia because the weather hasn’t been ideal for the spread of the disease.

Mosquitoes need warm, stagnant water to breed, but the amount on a magnolia leaf after a rain is enough to lay eggs. Once the larvae mature, mosquitoes get the virus from the blood of birds carrying the virus in their system.

To get them before they mature, Fulton has already put chemicals in 8,700 water basins and atop manholes with pooling water to kill mosquito larvae, said Eli Jones, Fulton’s deputy health director.

As for the live ones, he said it took the lab two weeks to a month to tell them the mosquitoes at Frankie Allen Park near Buckhead had tested positive for West Nile. He said they have four traps test positive last year.

READ | Tick, mosquito and flea infections in US more than triple since 2004, CDC warns

In both counties, the traps use a stinky brew to attract mosquitoes.

Nickens said the staff mixes hay and water in a trash can, then let it get all smelly outside the health department building — “when you take the lid off, it draws quite the aroma” — which crews then use to fill traps with a fan that sucks mosquitoes into a net to be tested.

This all takes time, and money — Nickens said the county’s West Nile budget this year is more than $280,000.

What would help most, he said, is people just dumping water.

“By eliminating the water, that’s half the battle,” he said.

Follow The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Facebook and Twitter