ATLANTA - When ticks caused an outbreak of Rocky Mountain spotted fever at an American Indian reservation in Arizona, the nation's premier health agency called the Orkin Man.
Why? The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arizona health department didn't have enough money and manpower to fight the bloodsucking insects on their own.
But the federal health agency knew Orkin Pest Control - known for the Orkin Man, the tough, armor-clad exterminator featured in its TV commercials - could donate services that dwarfed what the health departments could spend on the outbreak.
In recent years, the CDC and other health agencies have been turning to pest control companies like Atlanta-based Orkin and Memphis-based Terminix International Co. to contribute expertise and resources in emergencies nationwide. By doing so, Orkin gets access to the latest scientific information from the federal agency. In return, the CDC is able to tap into resources it doesn't have and can pass health messages through Orkin's employees.
"It's gotten to the point that whenever we have a large issue, ... we ask for their assistance," said CDC spokeswoman Abigail Tumpey on Orkin. "We basically speak with them practically once a month."
Orkin donated its services in the Arizona outbreak, sending out its chief entomologist and a crew of technicians. Orkin provided tick control to more than 350 affected homes, treated another 1,000 homes with chemicals, passed out 2,000 tick collars for dogs and taught four reservation members pest control methods.
"If they charged for their services, it would have come close to $200,000," Tumpey said of the April 2005 outbreak. "That basically tripled the amount of resources we were able to pour into the reservation, which was huge."
Although the federal agency has closely worked with the private sector in the past, CDC chief Julie Gerberding pushed to have the agency's divisions actively look for partnerships on health matters after she took over the agency in July 2002, said Lisa Koonin, the CDC's chief of public and private partnerships.
"We think it's a good way to amplify health," Koonin said.
Orkin's relationship with the CDC developed in 2004 as the West Nile virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, spread across the U.S.
"We sought them out," said Orkin spokeswoman Martha Craft. "Our customers were asking our technicians about the West Nile virus ... but we didn't feel like we were in the best place to give out information. They liked the idea" of teaming up to provide the public with up-to-date information on the virus.
The company doesn't write off its donated services on its tax returns but considers them instead as a "normal business expense," Craft said.
"The reason we did those things was because CDC asked us to and that's part of the collaboration," she said. "We have expertise that they don't have and they have expertise that we don't have."
Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center, said the efforts of pest control companies toward improving health benefit the public, even if many employees of those companies do not have formal training in public health.
"They're exercising their prowess for issues in their domain - ticks, controlling vermin and rodents - that's fine and excellent," said Tierno, author of the 2004 book, "The Secret Life of Germs." "It's good to have private companies do things like this ... it's sort of a giveback to society."
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast in 2005, Terminix provided rodent and mosquito control in affected areas and Orkin has worked with the CDC to eliminate mold and termites in damaged homes in New Orleans. Orkin also has helped the CDC control mosquitoes at an Indian reservation in Nevada and reduce hantavirus cases in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico by shrinking the population of rodents, which transmit the disease. Terminix has also fought the rise of bedbugs across the U.S. and fire ants from California to Kentucky.
Much like the cadre of scientists the CDC deploys in health emergencies, Orkin has its own rapid response team of experts to handle outbreaks when the federal health agency requests assistance.
"The general public may not connect the two - pest control with protecting their health, but I guarantee that ... anybody who's had fire ants, bees or wasps, or rodents in their homes, they're very concerned about their health," said Stoy Hedges, Terminix entomologist and director of technical services.
Orkin has other ties with public health. Since 1992, family members from Orkin's parent holding company Rollins, Inc. have donated nearly $20 million for the Rollins School of Public Health at Atlanta's Emory University. Orkin president Glen Rollins said his grandfather, O. Wayne Rollins, made the initial gift to highlight the link between his company's work and good health.
"In the couple decades since that gift, I think people really see that connection," he said. "People are realizing that rodents and insects spread disease."