Mosquito prevention program expands testing in county

By Brenda Young

In an effort to stop the occurrence of West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses, the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD) has expanded its testing program and is focusing efforts on alerting and educating citizens about personal protection and disease prevention.

“We are expanding our testing to try to locate any forms of mosquitoes that may be infected with the West Nile virus,” WCCHD Communications Director Marcus Cooper said. “We’ve been testing since May, and we’ll continue testing for mosquitoes through November. So far this year, we haven’t had any cases of West Nile virus in the human population, and we haven’t detected a positive from any of the mosquitoes we’ve been trapping so far.”

Prompted by growing concern, the Liberty Hill City Council adopted an ordinance earlier this month regulating the storage and disposal of tires to prevent rainwater collection that could prove conducive to creating mosquito breeding grounds.

According to Cooper, the six-month cycle of testing coincides with the time of year mosquitoes are most prevalent. Testing consists of setting small traps, averaging 25 traps per week, throughout random locations within Williamson County.

“We set them one day, and pick them up the next. It’s a small tub with a net that traps mosquitoes and we take them to test for neuro-invasive viruses like West Nile virus,” Cooper said. “If we got a positive score, then we would begin the process of notifying those areas where we find the mosquitoes and put out an alert about the situation.”

Cooper said in 2012, there was one West Nile virus-related fatality in eastern Travis County, and there were six to eight reports of people infected with the neuro-virus that same year. In 2013, there were no reported cases.

“We began this whole process of testing based on the level of activity in 2012, and it’s taken us some time to hire the staff and get the funding we needed for it,” Cooper said. “Without data, we had no real idea of the patterns of mosquito growth in the area, and we couldn’t understand why we had a fatality and several cases one year (2012), and then the following year, we had no reported cases of West Nile at all.”

Cooper said this is the district’s way of being proactive, to learn about the growth patterns of mosquitoes and test to see where they live, where they reproduce and where the disease could potentially pop up.

WCCHD made a proposal last year to the cities of Cedar Park, Georgetown, Hutto, Leander and Taylor requesting funds. Through the budget process of each city, they allotted a certain amount of money, which allowed WCCHD to hire an additional staff person — an entomologist — and to purchase the necessary testing equipment. Williamson County officials were also financially supportive of the program.

“It is nearly impossible to eliminate the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses throughout the county, but our expanded evidence-based mosquito surveillance capabilities this year will allow us to collect more data and control and manage the threat,” WCCHD Assistant Deputy Director Deborah Marlow stated.

Cooper explained the primary role of the WCCHD is to serve as health department officials for all of Williamson County, and it operates as an independent entity, not a county department.

“Health district funding is derived from contributions from our member city governments that make yearly contributions to health district operations. They contribute $2.25, per capita, and a portion of those funds help operate the integrated mosquito program. Our total program costs this year are $113,757,” Cooper said.

The project also supports a public outreach campaign called “Fight the Bite”, which contains basic information and tips to prevent mosquito bites.

“It’s pretty straight forward information, as a lot of people know how to protect themselves, but it’s always good to have that reinforcement,” Cooper said.