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West Nile threat has officials on alert

Kristal Brown was on a mission, deep in the jungles of Loomis. She stalked her prey, set her trap and then ran for her life.

"I was in such a hurry, I lost my sunglasses," said the Placer Mosquito Abatement District lab technician. "I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could before I got eaten alive."

While most people are exchanging sweaters for tank tops and basking in the sunshine, Placer Mosquito Abatement District officials are on high alert for the pests that carry West Nile virus. With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching, the agency wants residents to "fight the bite" by draining standing pools of water and slathering on bug repellent.

"Our message is prevention," said Public Outreach Specialist Linda Beasley.

The West Nile virus - which is spread by mosquitoes and can be deadly for people with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly and people with HIV - is now found throughout California. Last year, a 56-year-old Placer County man contracted West Nile. The disease also was found in 47 dead birds, 29 horses as well as four mosquito pools, Scott said.

This year, West Nile already has been detected in at least one Placer County bird.

"Look at this weather. It's beautiful outside," Vector Ecologist Jamesina Scott said at a Monday news conference in Roseville's Maidu Park. "Everybody is going to be out this weekend, wearing short-sleeved shirts and shorts, and barbecuing. It's summertime."It's also the start of West Nile season."

Abatement district technicians regularly monitor and treat large areas of water where the insects are known to breed. They also collect samples of larvae for lab technicians such as Brown to identify, since only some species carry the disease.

"The technicians do a great job of controlling mosquitoes in public areas such as wetlands and pools," Scott said. "But we don't go into everybody's backyards."

Since mosquitoes can breed in as little as a half-inch of water, agency officials are asking residents to check their yards for standing pools at least once a week. Cover or turn over containers, cap chain-link fence posts, put screens over outdoor drains and use doughnut-shaped "dunks" that contain bacillus thuringiensis for outdoor water containers. Also known as BTi, the bacteria kills mosquito and fly larvae but is not harmful to fish and animals.

The Placer Abatement District also will deliver live mosquito fish that feed on larvae to residents who want to use them in their water gardens, fountains or birdbaths.

"It's an unreasonable goal to think you can get rid of all mosquitoes," Scott said. "We're just trying to keep the numbers as low as we can, to prevent people from getting sick."

In addition to staying indoors at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active, district officials advise wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants as well as using insect repellent.

Beasley said repellent containing DEET is still the most effective, but oil of lemon eucalyptus is a good plant-based alternative.

"It's proven to be effective for up to six hours," Beasley said. "It also smells better than the ones with DEET."


Avoiding West Nile

Until recently, mosquitoes did not pose a serious health threat. That's changed now that the West Nile virus can be found throughout California. Here are some tips to protect yourself from mosquitoes:

  Make sure all screens are "bug tight."

  Stay indoors at dawn, sunset and early evening when mosquitoes are most active.

  Always use repellent when you go out.

  Wear light-colored, long and loose clothing.

  Drain standing pools of water. Mosquitoes can hatch in as little as a half-inch of water.

For more information about repellent, as well as a home and garden checklist, go to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation Web site: www.cdpr.ca.gov.

Visit the Placer Mosquito Abatement District Web site at www.placermosquito.org or call (916) 435-2140 for other sources of information about West Nile virus.

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