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L.A.'s West Nile hunter

Jennifer Wilson is relishing 'a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.'

August 20, 2004|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

The impulse to scratch is all-consuming. That subtle tickling sensation on an arm, an ankle, the back of the neck intensifies as swarms of mosquitoes -- all of them potential carriers of the deadly West Nile virus -- jump and flutter and pile onto one another. Fortunately, they're confined to eight tightly cinched sacks.

Jennifer Wilson barely notices them as she drives, which is slightly alarming considering that the mosquito prisons dangle on hooks just behind her head, inches from her face. ("The morbidity" of the virus, she says dismissively, "is less than that of the flu.") Still, the insects must sense her sweet-smelling perfume, her bare arms, the absence of insect repellent. It's been hours since they had a "blood meal." Surely, they're starved.

But there will be no feeding. On this, their unluckiest day, these delicate insects are headed to a "deep freeze" refrigerator in Santa Fe Springs to be preserved for testing.

Welcome to the front lines in the local battle against West Nile virus, a disease that has infected more than 10,500 people nationally and killed nearly 300 in the last year. The virus is also perhaps the best thing to happen to a young ecologist like Wilson, who until recently only dreamed of such an epidemic.

"Around the world, you could be studying malaria or AIDS, but it's just not going to get as much attention or funding right now," she says during her Tuesday morning "virus surveillance." "This is just such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- a brand new disease, seeing how it responds to its environment and how people respond to it."

Since May, Wilson has been clocking 16-hour days, shuttling between the lab in Santa Fe Springs and 20 bird and mosquito trapping sites throughout the county. A research associate employed by the UC Davis Arbovirus Research Unit, Wilson and four ecologists at the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District are charged with monitoring 1,350 square miles that include 33 cities and about 5 million people. They track the area's "vectors," or animals and insects known to carry or transport disease, in this case West Nile virus.

What was "a pretty mundane" routine is now "completely unpredictable," Wilson says. Schedules must stay fluid because the virus moves rapidly. This month it traveled 600 miles -- from Southern California to Sacramento -- in two weeks. "We're trying to pace ourselves, because we know it's going to get a lot worse before winter hits," she says.

Lately, Wilson has become something of a media darling, having to "squeeze in" research between ride-alongs with Channel 4 (NBC), Channel 5 (WB), Channel 11 (Fox), even the PBS show "Nova." When one crew asked her to move her sentinel chickens "somewhere more scenic," she says, Wilson fought the inclination to shout: "We're trying to control an epidemic here, folks!"


Driven, and driving

There's something counter-intuitive about the title "Los Angeles ecologist," and yet Wilson looks the part. Petite, with long blond hair and flawless skin, she smiles and laughs a lot, and when she spots mosquito larvae floating atop the water in one trap she gasps, "That is the coolest thing ever!"

Practically speaking, Wilson's job is a lot of driving to and from tucked-away trapping sites, where she retrieves mosquitoes and birds and monitors the sentinel chickens, which serve as signals of the disease's arrival. In the lab, she helps preserve dead birds and mosquitoes, classifying and testing them. It's nothing that might inspire a Michael Crichton novel.

Yet Wilson maintains an exceptional sense of wonder for her world. Complex scientific explanations and overwrought Latin insect names come easily to her, and she uses them as if everyone speaks this language. She wistfully recalls her work with the Asian tiger mosquito, a "spectacularly beautiful" insect from southeast China, describing the "gorgeous white stripes going across their heads and across their legs."

She speaks tenderly of crows, a dominant transporter of the virus, whose oil-slick coats and bad-omen vibe rarely evoke such emotion. They form "tight little family groups," she says. And as a result they often get infected, plummet from their perches and "pass away" together.

"It's so tragic what happens to these crows," Wilson says. "It's so sad. They have this seven-day period from the time they get infected to the time they pass away, and that last couple days they are paralyzed. They're just blinking. There's really not much they can do. And unfortunately they're an easy meal for mosquitoes during that time too. Children have seen these birds on the ground and they think: Oh. I'll make a pet out of it, it's so tame. We had one little boy get bitten by a crow. But that was basically all the motor functioning it could even do. Poor crow."

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