|June 17, 2013|
West Nile virus fears on rise after Hurricane Sandy
|With mosquito season approaching, some health officials are concerned about another possible consequence of Hurricane Sandy: an elevated risk of the West Nile virus.|
Although they said it is too early to tell how severe the threat will be, officials said they are concerned about the "increased opportunity" for mosquitoes to breed because of standing water left in debris, depressions from fallen trees, damaged gutters and unmaintained swimming pools. And with more mosquitoes come mosquito-born illnesses.
"If the weather conditions are conducive, then the habitats could lead to increases, as well as the number of birds with the virus," said Shereen Semple, an epidemiologist of vector-borne diseases with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and a person unofficially known as the state's "mosquito expert."
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, stressed that an increased risk is still only considered "potential," however.
"It really depends on the weather for the next few weeks. Right now, we are kind of a bit more on the alert for a potential, tricky mosquito season," Ragonese added. "When there is a lot more water, there is a lot more potential for mosquito breeding."
Early indications are not good. The state has been soaked by storms in recent weeks and may break records this month for precipitation.
Ragonese said the state's Mosquito Control Commission has spoken with officials in all counties, and Sandy-affected areas are "doubling up on efforts" in places where breeding is more likely to occur, particularly around standing water.
West Nile is a virus usually contracted from mosquitoes who feed on infected birds. Although most people who get the disease do not show any symptoms, some suffer fevers, headaches, body aches, vomiting or rash, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New Jersey had 48 human cases of West Nile virus last year --- a record for the state --- and six deaths.
With large parts of Ocean County affected by Sandy, the area may be more susceptible to potential risks because of existing damages from abandoned homes and residual standing water on properties.
Leslie Terjesen, public information officer for the Ocean County Health Department, said that West Nile virus is "certainly way on top of our radar" now, even though it is an annual concern. She stressed the importance of removing dead birds where mosquitoes can contract the virus.
"We are really concerned about the after-effects of Sandy and standing water," Terjesen said, "especially the storm drains still clogged with sand and dumpsters in yards, which may not be picked up yet, since that is a great place for breeding."
Terjesen said the county Health Department has taken early precautions by distributing packets and visiting different towns every week. She recommended that people "mosquito-proof their home" by fixing holes in screens, removing water from planters and patio furniture and using mosquito repellent.
"If we get any more rain, I'm concerned about the people still in the process of tearing down homes," she said. "Getting rid of standing water is one of the best things you can do."
State Sen. Robert Singer, vice chairman of the Ocean County Board of Health, agreed that the state as well as legislators need to be "more vigilant," especially with the concerns of more rain and abandoned homes in Sandy-affected areas.
"It's a funny thing about Sandy, because Shore legislators see it as the work has just begun, yet others think it's done since there may be no damage in their areas," he said. "Being so close to the Shore area, we're more attuned to this situation and need to take proactive action so we don't have a problem."
Acknowledging the concern of standing water, Singer, who is also a member of the Senate's Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, said Ocean County health officials will be working "hand in hand" with the state's mosquito commission to avoid potential problems.
Ragonese, of the DEP, said that within the next month, "mosquito-battling fish and crustaceans" will be released into small bodies of water.
"We don't want people to run for the hills right now, but it is something we are watching," he said.