In case you missed it, Union County declared a state of emergency last week. Not because of wildfires or bridges. Nope. As Ethan Lindsey reports from La Grande, the County Board of Commissioners got freaked out…by mosquitoes.
These aren't your run-of-the-mill mosquitoes. Many of the bugs in Union County are infected with the West Nile virus.
West Nile has been detected in every state in the continental U.S. Emilio De Bess is the Oregon state public health veterinarian. He says the virus is scary because it causes flu-like symptoms in 20 percent of those infected.
Emilio De Bess: “And in some cases, about 1 per 150, you have a neurological disease. That develops. The reason why we ask people to protect themselves and keep on educating people is to prevent a lot of this illness, which is what really our main job is.”
De Bess says that relatively rare neurological disease commonly results in death. That's why he and his counterparts across the Western half of the U.S. say they're on high alert this year — they believe an epidemic could be around the corner.
The first human infection in the U.S. was reported in New York City in 1999. Scientists believe birds carried the disease all the way to the west coast.
Last year, 4,269 cases were reported in the country, and 177 people died. The numbers so far this year are on an even more dangerous pace — the virus has killed 3 people — and most infections don't appear until mid-August.
Oregon's not alone. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency because of the high numbers of infections in his state.
Emigrant Springs State Park lies off the interstate 84, east of Pendleton. About one mile in from the off-ramp, I stumbled upon a small pool of standing water — about the size around of one of those inflatable kid's pools. It looks like mosquito heaven.
Public health officials say filling puddles like this one is the lynchpin to stopping the spread of West Nile. The virus is transmitted to humans and birds via mosquitoes.
In all of Union County, there is one man in charge of wiping out these danger zones.
Kelly Beehler: “I'm Kelly Beehler with the Union County Vector Control. I'm the county district manager. Not too many people get it. They say vector control? And then I have to follow it up with mosquito patrol, for them to understand what I am saying.”
Beehler's job is like this: a resident calls his office to report a dead bird, or a mosquito outbreak. Then, the “Vector Control Team” jumps into action. They swab inside the bird's beak, and send that sample off to the state to test for West Nile.
Then Beehler heads out to the problem area and sprays insecticide and larvacide, to kill off all the mosquitoes. He says now that the county is in a state of emergency, he has a little more money to work with. And a bigger soapbox from which to issue alerts.
He hopes that'll help him get the message out in eastern Oregon this summer. But he also knows the virus is never going away - and will just keep spreading.
Kelly Beehler: “While the infected birds are here, the mosquitos are spreading it in the bird population. Birds fly and then they spread it to mosquitos. So trust me, the Westside of the state will get its turn.”
Actually, state veterinarian De Bess says that turn may be coming this year. Multnomah County officers have already found dead birds carrying West Nile.
Emilio De Bess: “The worst case scenario would be for the virus to mutate, in such a way that it would not recognize the immunity it had before - and create a whole new epidemic. Is it likely to happen? No…but who knows, viruses are interesting beasts.”
De Bess points to the East Coast for a more desirable outcome. Since the disease has now been working its way through the population over there for almost a decade, immunities have built up. And now in states like New York, the West Nile virus has blended into the public health infrastructure.
If it can't be eliminated, public health officials say they'd settle for turning the West Nile virus into just another version of the flu — another disease that can be deadly, but certainly, no cause for panic.