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Fighting Virus Could Let Rats Roam

Keeping West Nile out of O.C. may mean diverting vector control efforts away from rodents. Some on the agency board oppose the move.

September 05, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

The head of the Orange County Vector Control District is so concerned about the West Nile virus that he may suspend his agency's rat patrol in order to concentrate solely on virus-carrying mosquitoes.

There have been no human cases of West Nile virus in Orange County, but the virus was recently detected in mosquitoes in Imperial County, a sign that the dangerous disease could spread to Orange County and elsewhere throughout Southern California.

Robert Sjogren, general manager of the vector district, has told the district's board of directors he doesn't have the resources to combat both the county's rat problem and an outbreak of West Nile virus.

The idea has received a lukewarm response from some members of the district's board.

In 2001, the Orange County Grand Jury concluded that the county has a serious rat problem.

Each year, the county's vector district receives about 14,000 rat-related calls from residents, said Michael Hearst, the district's spokesman.

So ditching rat abatement efforts, even temporarily, concerns some of the 35 board members who help set the county's vector control policy.

"If we have to temporarily shift some resources, that's OK. But as far as terminating one program to adopt another, I don't think that's going to work," said board member Doug Davert, a Tustin councilman. "We can't let the rats run through Orange County totally unabated. That would be a nightmare."

West Nile virus has been found overseas and was first detected in the United States in 1999 in New York City.

A Los Angeles County woman was diagnosed with West Nile last year. The source of the illness was never determined.

The virus is carried by birds and is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes that have bitten infected birds. Orange County officials have been testing dead birds but have found no sign of the virus, Hearst said.

Most often, infected people suffer only mild flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all, Hearst said.

But in rare cases, the disease causes encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. This year, there have been more than 2,200 reported cases of human West Nile virus in the United States and 43 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"The virus has moved across the country at a rate nobody found possible," Hearst said. "It's a fast-moving virus. It's adaptable. That's the problem: It's comfortable with different mosquitoes, different animals."

The Orange County Vector Control District is attacking known breeding areas for mosquitoes and educating residents about steps they can take to reduce the county's mosquito population.

As many as half of the county's mosquitoes are in residential neighborhoods, breeding in fish ponds, neglected pools and water beneath planters.

The debate about shifting attention from rats to mosquitoes comes just weeks after the district defended its past practice of working on outside projects -- including jobs for the state and Disneyland -- and dividing some of the profits among employees as bonuses.

The possibility that the Orange County Vector Control District might suspend rat-control programs drew a word of caution from Lal Mian, a public health biologist who formerly worked for the San Bernardino Vector Control District.

"We're talking about a number of diseases rats are capable of transmitting, so we should not get confused into taking care of one thing and not the other. We have to have a balanced approach," said Mian.

"But for Orange County, whatever they do, it's their call."

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