Threat from the air
Team makes hunt

LAWRENCEVILLE - Every Monday and Tuesday, April through November, Sid Kirkpatrick traipses through grass and brush setting and retrieving traps in search of a deadly inhabitant of both water and land.

But his target isn't a venomous snake or frog. It's not even the alligator that lurks somewhere among the muck of the Chattahoochee River. Kirkpatrick's in search of mosquitoes. And he always succeeds.

In the past three months since mosquito season began, Kirkpatrick, one of four West Nile Virus technicians for the Environmental Section of the Gwinnett County Board of Health, said many of the pesky insects have been trapped this year as part of the technicians' goal to track the virus.

"For our purposes we're really looking for two different kinds of mosquitoes," Kirkpatrick said. "The Culex (Southern House Mosquito) species, which we concentrate on because they're prone to carry West Nile, and the Albopitus (Tiger mosquito)."

The team strategically places traps for the bugs around the county in hopes the tiny insects will be attracted to their bait of fermented rabbit food and get sucked into their bucket/fan contraption.

"We've got 22 bait sites in Gwinnett County and through that we get a pretty broad coverage of the county," Kirkpatrick said. "We put as many as we can near nursing homes and at-risk communities. We really cover the whole area geographically."

After trapping, Kirkpatrick said he and the rest of the technicians sort and label the mosquitoes in preparation for shipment to the University of Georgia where scientists analyze the bugs, reporting which mosquitoes are carrying and could spread West Nile.

When sorting Billie Haney, a Gwinnett West Nile technician, said he and the other trappers are only looking to keep the trapped female mosquitoes.

"The males supposedly don't bite," Haney said. "The females bite because they need a blood meal to fertilize their eggs before they can lay."

Although mosquito season won't peak until mid-July, Kirkpatrick said the county is already seeing a rather hefty number of the insects.

"We've seen quite a few even though it's been dry," Kirkpatrick said. "They'll find even the littlest bit of water and lay their eggs."

With it still early in the season, Kirkpatrick said Gwinnett has not received word of any mosquitoes carrying West Nile caught in their traps.

"We number the mosquito pools (sorted mosquito packages) we send off to Athens to keep track of them just in case we have a positive pool, and we usually do," Kirkpatrick said.

Established in 2002, Kirkpatrick said he, Haney and the others focused on picking up birds at first, testing the fowl for the virus, but they eventually moved to mosquito trapping.

"Birds can fly some 50 miles, but mosquitoes tend to stay in their habitat," Haney said. "So we get a pretty good amount of mosquitoes to test just from one neighborhood."

Although none of the bugs trapped in Gwinnett have tested positive at the Athens lab, Kirkpatrick said they're ready when they do.

"When we get a situation we let the people know and we try to destroy the habitat with larvacide," Kirkpatrick said. "If we keep getting positive readings we'll go to the government authority, whether it's the city or the county, and then they decide what to do. Whether it's purchase larvacide or spray for the adults."

The virus

County District Environmental Health Specialist Don Crouch said Gwinnett hasn't seen any human reports of the virus this year so far. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no reports of human or avian, animal or mosquito virus infections have been documented in Georgia this year, although there have been reports in Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Kirkpatrick said he thinks the virus has lost much of its meaning among people in the states, remembering the big scare of the virus emerging with widespread panic in 2000.

"The panic part is over," Kirkpatrick said. "But I'm still careful. I use repellents all the time."

Crouch said it's important to remember the virus can be deadly, although mostly a high-risk problem for the elderly, small children and those with low immune systems.

"There's been over 1,000 deaths nationwide since 1999 and 2000," Crouch said. "No deaths in Gwinnett County, but there was some in south Georgia. A healthy person probably wouldn't know it if they had the symptoms."

Although the virus is not present in the county now, Couch said Gwinnett averages about nine positive mosquito pools each year.

Kirkpatrick said last year's first positive pool was reported on July 25.

Protect yourself

Dr. Rosemarie Kelly, public health entomologist for the Georgia Division of Public Health, said there are ways to prevent the spread of the virus by mosquitoes, starting with reducing the items outdoors that can collect and keep stagnant water - the preferred breeding ground for mosquitoes.

"Especially in urban areas, containers are a problem," Kelly said. "Keep windows secure and in good repair, treat standing water with larvacide and wear repellent."

Kirkpatrick suggests wearing an insect repellent that contains the deterrent DEET, which will keep the insects from biting treated skin.

Haney said the chance of a West Nile infection will continue until the end of the mosquito season, which is usually November.

Haney said to prevent an excess in the mosquito population the following year, water should be dumped out so the insects' larva won't winter.

"The adults can't survive in the cold, but the eggs go over the winter," Haney said. "They lie their eggs in stagnant water and when it freezes they can last until the next warm weather."

SideBar: Tips to keep mosquitoes away

' Reduce amounts of free-standing water.

' Wear insect repellent containing DEET or keep skin covered.

' Don't leave containers outside that could trap water and attract mosquitoes to lay their eggs.