Health officials worry heavy rains may lead to mosquito-borne illness | News

Unprecedented rainfall this summer has farmers worrying about crop disease and pests while county road crews are stressing over dirt road conditions.

But they’re not the only ones keeping a close eye on the potential impact of excess water.

With seven West Nile Virus (WNV) human cases reported in the state this year, one resulting in a fatality, health officials are urging folks to take precautions against mosquito-borne viruses.

One person has also died from a rarer mosquito-borne virus, Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE). Health officials haven’t confirmed where the person was infected.

Mosquitoes in Glynn, Lowndes and Chatham Counties tested positive for WNV, and while that’s not always a sign human contraction will follow, it’s an indication folks should be more vigilant in protecting themselves from mosquito bites and get rid of potential breeding areas around their homes.

It was nearly 40 years ago when Pierce County was the site of an EEE outbreak, but for the family and friends of someone directly affected by the disease, it probably feels like just yesterday.

Two Pierce County men — a 21-year-old and a 60-year-old — died in July 1980 four days apart after contracting the virus. Another Ware County woman contracted the virus as well, but survived.

At the time of Pierce County’s outbreak, state health officials said the virus, which causes severe brain infection, was fatal in 50 percent of human cases, but extremely rare to contract. It mostly affects horses bitten by mosquitoes — hence the name, Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Georgia only reported one death from the virus every five to seven years and had no reported cases in five years.

“The probability that there would be three cases of this disease to strike Pierce County citizens at almost the same time is almost beyond belief — but it looks like that is what is happening,” said Dr. Keith Sikes, state epidemiologist investigating the 1980 Pierce County outbreak. Sikes was quoted in several articles published in The Blackshear Times during July of that year.

Pierce County officials responded promptly to the outbreak by implementing an aggressive mosquito spraying campaign, and the county was declared virus free within two weeks.

Forty years later the City of Blackshear still sprays for mosquitoes once a week from May or June through October, but only at night when residents are less likely to be walking the streets.

Pierce County does not currently have a mosquito spray program although the topic has come up recently due to the increased rainfall, says County Manager Jason Rubenbauer.

But spraying can also be detrimental to local agriculture. The county is hesitant to spray and potentially affect a major player in the local economy.

“Because of the agriculture producers in the area one thing we’ve really got to take into consideration with any type of spraying is the bees,” Rubenbauer says. “The sprays used for mosquitoes do also kill bees, and those are the number one pollinators.”

Sikes said in 1980 Pierce County’s low-lying farmlands coupled with wet, humid weather made the area an ideal place for these mosquito-borne viruses to spread.

Pierce County is still fertile ground for breeding heavy mosquito populations that may contract EEE or WNV and transmit it to people.

Historically, human cases spike in years when rains are heavy, resulting in denser mosquito populations, and County Extension Agent James Jacobs confirms mosquitoes will be a bigger problem this year.

“We’ve just had so much rainfall,” he says.

“The increase in the rainy weather have been a variable but not a definite,” adds Toni Nelson, public information officer for the Southeast Health District. “The mosquito growth increases due to standing water, so it is recommended to Tip n Toss any standing water daily.”

EEE’s mortality rate is now reduced to 33 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), whose data shows just three cases reported in Georgia between 2007-2016.

Georgia’s Dept. of Public Health reported one EEE case in South Georgia two years ago and two cases last year, but Georgia reported a spike in West Nile cases in 2017.

DPH confirmed 64 WNV cases and seven fatalities last year, compared to 13 cases with no fatalities in 2016. The virus reports peaked in August. Most cases are reported July-September.

Georgia is one of 30 states reporting human WNV cases so far this year although numbers aren’t nearly as high as last year’s records.

Officials for the 16-county Southeast Health District, of which Pierce County is a part, say none of the reported human cases are within this district.

Public health officials are reminding Georgians of the time-tested prevention methods: “The Five D’s.”

Dusk/dawn – Mosquitoes usually bite at dusk and dawn, so avoid or limit outdoor activity at these times.

Dress – Wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors, especially at dawn and dusk to reduce the amount of exposed skin, as weather permits.

DEET – Cover exposed skin with an EPA-registered insect repellent containing one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone.

Drain – Daily empty any containers holding standing water because they are excellent breeding grounds for virus-carrying mosquitoes.

Doors – Make sure doors and windows are in good repair and fit tightly and fix torn or damaged screens to keep mosquitoes out of the house.

“We want to remind the public there is no vaccine for humans for these mosquito-borne diseases, nor is there a specific treatment,” says Dwain Butler, Director of Environmental Health for the Southeast Health District. “Those with severe cases may be hospitalized. The best prevention is to avoid being bitten.”

The DPH is actively testing mosquito pools throughout the state, including South Georgia, Butler adds.

For more information about protective measures or mosquito-borne illnesses, contact the local health department or visit