Is there a way to prevent Maricopa County from coming down with the worst case of West Nile virus in America’s limited history of the disease?
Can the virus be fought effectively without doing additional harm to people, animals and the environment?
Disease control experts, politicians, environmentalists and the public are considering the same uneasy questions as the West Nile virus continues to target the Valley like an expert marksman aiming for Arizona’s center mass.
With 246 confirmed human cases of the disease and two reported deaths as of Monday, growing fear about West Nile virus has begotten distrust and disagreement, much of it centered on the issue of whether to attack the county’s adult mosquito population with insecticide sprayed from aircraft.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has decided not to use aerial spraying for now, contrary to a suggestion last week from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, Supervisor Don Stapley, R-District 2 of Mesa, said county elected officials have not strayed from the scientific endeavor to curb the disease’s spread as safely and effectively as possible.
"The recommendation from the experts is to do what we’ve been doing — aggressively ramping up the ground spraying," Stapley said.
But frustrated rumblings from state and local disease control experts raise doubts as to whether misplaced fears and political pandering could be preventing the Valley from getting the emergency treatment it needs.
"What (aerial spraying) will do is cover a larger area, quicker," said Arizona Department of Health Services program manager Craig Levy. "If you reduce the mosquito numbers, you reduce the spread of the virus."
Levy was reluctant to speak frankly about aerial spraying, saying the topic has become such a dispute. Some environmental groups say it is dangerous to spray pesticides, such as the synthetic pyrethroids being used on the ground, from the air in the Valley, despite its approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Levy said the public should realize that the EPA would not approve anything harmful, and that disease control experts wouldn’t knowingly use an unsafe product.
"Public health people are charged with the duty of protecting the public health," he said.
Still, Levy said Maricopa County has not received enough credit for the "humongous" task it has undertaken this summer. County officials are now covering 35,000 acres each night with insecticide sprayed from the backs of trucks. The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve another $2.1 million today for mosquito spraying, larvicide, traps and other equipment for fighting the disease.
"They’re working overtime out the wazoo," Levy said.
If any group needs to step up its disease-fighting efforts, he said, it’s the public.
"We are telling them the right things, but the question is are they implementing them?" he said. "Are they walking the talk?"
No matter how much insecticide the county sprays, Levy said, residents ultimately have the power to protect themselves and others from the disease’s spread.
Wearing clothes that covers the body and using insect repellent with DEET are the best way to thwart West Nile, he said.
In addition, people should seek out and remove or report potential mosquitobreeding areas in their neighborhoods, such as standing pools of water in outdoor drains, trash cans, tires, gutters, birdbaths and ponds.
Dead birds — excluding pigeons, doves and baby birds — should be reported to the county for analysis if they appear to be fresh and intact.
"You cannot stop (West Nile), but you can slow it down and reduce the risk," he said.
Stapley said the Board of Supervisors will reconsider the aerial spraying issue in seven to 10 days, depending on the expert recommendations at that time.
"If they tell me tomorrow we need to go aerial, I’m there," he said.
What: Maricopa County Board of Supervisors special meeting
When: 9 a.m. today
Where: Supervisors’ auditorium, 205 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix
Why: Vote to increase ground-based spraying for West Nile Virus
Mosquito fogging information line: (602) 372-3000
West Nile public information line: (602) 747-7500
Dead bird reporting and drop-off: (602) 506-6616
Free larva-eating fish for standing pools: (602) 506-0700