West Nile case confirmed in Pa.; state fears more with potential record amount of mosquitoes

Heavy rains and receding floodwaters have led to optimal conditions for mosquitoes, says the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection — creating a “perfect storm of conditions” for West Nile virus.

“With record levels of West Nile virus activity in mosquitoes already found, we are at increased risk of disease from a bite of a mosquito,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell Friday in a statement. “It is imperative that Pennsylvania residents take common-sense precautions to protect themselves from mosquitoes.”

Though there has been only one confirmed human case of West Nile virus this year, it is on track to worsen. Why?  West Nile has been found in mosquitoes in 51 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties this year — proving it is present in most of the state. The single human case was in Allegheny County in a man aged between 70 and 79.

Since 2000, the state has recorded 33 fatal cases of the virus.  But more often, symptoms resemble a mild flu, although the virus can result in swelling of the brain, muscle convulsions, coma, and paralysis.

The state has undertaken several initiatives, including localized spraying, to halt progress of the disease.  The state legislature also approved a $140,000 increase to the DEP’s West Nile program. DEP staff have fanned out to reduce mosquito habitats, such as old tire piles where standing water collects.

Officials urge residents to get rid of standing or stagnant water — prime egg-laying territory for mosquitoes. Rain water typically pools in potted plants, birdbaths, storage bins, kids’ toys, gutters, and downspouts. Because mosquitoes don’t travel far, it’s likely you are getting bitten from insects hatched on your own property or a neighbor’s.  A single upturned bottle cap could be used as an incubator for 300 mosquito eggs.

West Nile also can prove fatal to animals, including pets.

“The disease is especially deadly to birds, including grouse,” said Matt Helwig, a DEP biologist.

In fact, the ruffed grouse — the state bird — has been hit hard by West Nile.  The winter hunting season for the bird already has been curtailed because of the virus, as well as habitat loss.

Helwig recommends residents use EPA-approved repellents, such as DEET and picaridin, to reduce the number of mosquitoe bites.  He says long pants and sleeves also are a good preventative measure.

But Helwig stressed real prevention starts in your own backyard.

“If you’re being bitten by mosquitoes, they are nine times out of 10 coming from your property,” Helwig said. “Get rid of even small amounts of standing water around your home.”