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Mosquito Control Ramps Up As South Florida Prepares For Zika

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Last summer’s wave of local transmission of the Zika virus hasn’t yet bled into 2017 , but officials from Key West to West Palm Beach are gearing up for another round of mosquito control by creating new staff positions, adding more equipment and increasing outreach efforts.

In 2016, Florida saw more than 250 cases of locally transmitted Zika, the mosquito-borne virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito that can cause fevers, rashes and joint pain. The virus is particularly dangerous for unborn babies, and has been linked to birth defects that affect brain development. In the worst cases, mothers infected with the virus gave birth to babies with microcephaly, a condition that causes brain and skull deformities and other neurological problems.

So far in 2017, there have been at least 40 travel-related cases in the state, according to the Florida Department of Health, but no areas of local transmission – something state and local officials consider a significant accomplishment.

“We’re the first county to have broken the cycle of Zika transmission in the United States,” said Paul Mauriello, Miami-Dade County Deputy Director of Waste Operations, which oversees mosquito control.

As they did in 2016, all of the Mosquito Control departments plan to spray an organic bacterial larvicide called Bti to kill mosquito larvae. Departments throughout South Florida are also planning to use the controversial pesticide Naled again, but not for the Aedes aegypti species known for spreading Zika. Instead, they’ll use the chemical to kill salt marsh mosquitoes and use larvicides to keep Zika vectors from reaching adulthood in the first place.

When it comes to Naled, Richard Fenske, a pesticide expert from the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Washington, said there’s no need for alarm.

“Even if you’re outside, your exposure’s going to be quite small and not enough to produce symptoms or long-term health effects,” Fenske said.

Mauriello said Miami-Dade is preparing for the wet season by creating 42 new positions on its mosquito control staff, in addition to the 17 biologists, technicians and inspectors it already had. “… To accomplish what we need to going forward, we need a robust staff,” he said.

In Palm Beach County, Mosquito Control Environmental Analyst Chris Reisinger says his department is using grant money to buy new equipment, such as handheld foggers and spraying trucks, but also iPads, in order to use in a “completely paperless” system.

“[Using iPads] will really help us interact with the public and pull up records,” he said. “We spend a lot of our time looking through old records now.”

In Broward, officials say they’re ramping up outreach at community events, disseminating informational door hangers. And the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District is four weeks into a 12-week trial of a bacteria that prevents mosquito eggs from maturing to adulthood.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes need water to breed, but as little as bottlecap-full is enough. So Reisinger and the other mosquito control officials say South Floridians have a big role to play in preventing the virus’ spread.

“Kiddie pools, bottles and cans, tires, bromeliads ... The absolute number one thing people can do is just get rid of the standing water,” Reisinger said.

Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.