As Stanislaus County confirmed the first two cases of West Nile disease this year, mosquito abatement districts said regulators have shut down their aerial spraying used to control mosquitoes that spread the debilitating illness.
The county Health Services Agency said Friday that a 53-year-old woman and 64-year-old man had been hospitalized with the life-threatening form of West Nile. Their current medical conditions were not available.
Mosquitoes are in abundance due to the storms last winter and full reservoirs in the Sierra, which means more irrigation water on farms in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Aerial spraying anywhere near homes has been shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration office in Fresno, a local district manager said.
“Because of that, we have less acreage sprayed this year,” said Lloyd Douglass, general manager of East Side Mosquito Abatement District.
Douglass did not think the West Nile cases were caused by a lack of spraying. One of the cases was in the northern half of Stanislaus County, served by East Side; the other person lives in the Turlock Mosquito Abatement District.
The districts’ strategy for controlling West Nile is reducing the number of infected mosquitoes that bite and transmit the disease to local residents. Right now, the abatement districts can only use ground spraying close to where people live.
Aerial spraying is disallowed by the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Fresno, which did not return a message Friday afternoon.
The issue has to do with a waiver held by the Merced County Mosquito Abatement District. About a month ago, regulators said the waiver, which allows for mosquito abatement aerial spraying near residential areas, needs to be renewed. And that is taking some time this summer, the season when West Nile illness normally surfaces.
East Side and Turlock contract for the same aircraft used by Merced.
“I think the only reason it came up is because my name is on the waiver,” said Allan Inman, the Merced district’s former general manager, now retired. “I am now retired, so someone at the FAA said they need a new waiver.”
Under Inman’s management, the Merced district starting in 2005 battled the West Nile virus with aerial spraying over residential areas, which can be controversial in California. He said the waiver freeing the abatement district from rules applied to agricultural cropdusters allowed a twin-engine aircraft to operate at 200 feet over congested areas.
A twin-engine plane is required for spraying above or near residential neighborhoods, Inman said. If one engine fails, the pilot has a second engine to keep the plane from crashing into homes.
Inman stressed that the aerial spraying gave Merced County the lowest West Nile illness rates among counties in the Central Valley. East Side and Turlock have not used direct aerial spraying of neighborhoods but have hired aircraft to spray mosquitoes within a 1,000-foot buffer area near homes.
In a Facebook post, Modesto resident Steve Finch, who was stricken by West Nile a year ago, criticized the level of mosquito abatement in Stanislaus County. “Our case count always exceeds that of San Joaquin County and they have the Delta to contend with,” he wrote.
Finch, 55, said it took months to recover from West Nile meningitis. He believes his general fitness derived from long-distance running was the only reason he survived.
Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, county public health offficer, said the county has a higher rate of West Nile cases compared with other counties in the state. “We just seem to have doctors who diagnose it or more disease here,” she said. “It is very important that people take precautions to protect themselves and their families from mosquito bites.”
West Nile disease is spread by the bites of infected mosquitoes. Most people infected won’t have symptoms. About 20 percent will develop symptoms of fever, headache and fatigue lasting several weeks.
Fewer than 1 percent suffer from the life-threatening neurological form and may have long-term disabilities.
Health officials advised the public to take steps to avoid mosquito bites. The precautions include insect repellent, wearing clothing with less skin exposure, draining standing water around their homes and staying indoors in the morning and evening when mosquitoes are active.
County residents can report mosquito problems, such as neglected swimming pools, by calling their local abatement districts. In Modesto and other communities north of the Tuolumne River, call the East Side Mosquito Abatement District at 209-522-4098. Turlock Mosquito Abatement District, serving the Turlock area, Ceres and the West Side, can be reached at 209-634-1234.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16