The Arizona Department of Health Services predicts that the deadly, mosquito-transmitted West Nile Virus will make its way to Arizona and Gila County within the next 12 to 24 months.
And according to Dave Pote, Director of Environmental Health for Gila County, now is the time to start preparing for its arrival.
The county is already trapping mosquitoes and sending them to the State Laboratory in Phoenix, much like other counties across the nation, Pote said.
"There, mosquito specimens are carefully examined for West Nile Virus as well as a wide array of other diseases that can impact public health or livestock," he said. "This ongoing surveillance program is vital for public health agencies to forecast, plan and respond to potentially dangerous diseases caused by mosquito bites."
The West Nile Virus falls into that category. To date, it has killed four people in Louisiana, and infected at least 88 others in Louisiana, Mississippi and Iowa.
"As of late July this year, eight people in the Houston, Texas area have tested positive for the virus," Pote said.
The Mississippi deaths, the first this year in the United States, raised the national West Nile toll to 22 since 1999.
The virus is named after the West Nile district in Uganda, where it was first discovered in 1937. Since then, cases have been reported in Europe, the Middle East, West and Central Asia, and the Pacific Islands, as well as Africa and North America.
The West Nile Virus was first detected in the United States in New York City, and in the past three years it has spread to 34 states and the District of Columbia, as far west as South Dakota. Before the newly announced deaths, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed 185 human cases and 18 deaths.
The virus infects numerous types of wild birds, from house sparrows to crows. Mosquitoes spread it among birds, and then to people. A spate of dead birds can be an early warning.
Most people who get bitten by an infected mosquito won't show any symptoms, but will become immune to the virus. Mild infections can cause flu-like symptoms: fever, headache, body aches, skin rash and swollen lymph glands. More severe infections can cause high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, occasional convulsions and paralysis. Anyone with any of those symptoms should see a doctor, health officials advise.
"We cannot stop this ... disease from making its way into Arizona and Gila County," Pote said. "However, each of us can make a difference by reducing mosquito populations around where we live."
Pote offers this list of simple things county residents can do today to reduce mosquito breeding areas around their homes:
Remove any buckets, old rimless tires, cans, or anything that can hold rain water. Mosquitoes use these protected areas to lay their eggs and breed multiple generations.
Don't allow any standing water. Keep your property well drained and dry as possible. Mud and wet, grassy edges provide excellent breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
If you do have ponds or other standing water features, contact a licensed pest control operator. They can provide effective control measures ranging from special bacteria and fish that feed on newly hatched mosquitoes, to growth regulating chemicals.
"According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia there is no specific treatment for West Nile Virus infection or vaccine to prevent it," Pote said. "So prevention is going to be one of your best 'medicines' for West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne diseases."
To that end, he said, contacts with mosquitoes can be reduced by taking the following actions:
When outdoors, wear clothing that covers the skin such as long sleeve shirts and pants;
Apply effective insect repellent (products with the chemical "DEET" listed as the active ingredient) to clothing and exposed skin;
Keep in mind mosquitoes are most active during warmer periods, especially from May to September;
Curb outside activity during the hours that mosquitoes are feeding which often includes dawn and dusk, and
Screens should be applied to doors and windows and regularly maintained to keep mosquitoes from entering your home.
For more information, call Svanna Jones or Jay Harrell at the Payson office of the Gila County Health Department, (928) 474-1210.