As Zika funds stall in Congress, Florida is attacking mosquitoes

Samples of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, responsible for transmitting dengue and Zika.
Samples of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, responsible for transmitting dengue and Zika. AP

Mosquito control isn’t a profession that requires much politicking. Killing tiny insects doesn’t take a lot of arm twisting.

But in May, Chris Lesser, assistant director of the Manatee County Mosquito Control Division, went to Washington to ask Congress for more money to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

A board member of the American Mosquito Control Association, Lesser and his colleagues found that securing help on Capitol Hill can be like chasing mosquitoes with a fishnet.

“It’s frustrating talking to Congress,” Lesser said. “When you go to their offices, you get a lot of handshaking. But then the vote goes right down party lines.”

And nothing gets resolved.

“When people say that D.C. is broken, this a perfect example why,” Lesser said of the four-month Zika funding standoff. “We have an issue at the federal level that can impact many, many people. It impacts children. It impacts women’s health. And we can’t, we just simply can’t, get Congress’ act together. It’s very frustrating.”

Seventy-two percent of Americans – including majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans — support allocating more federal funds to study the Zika virus and prevent its spread, according to a new poll this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Nearly two-thirds of the public – 65 percent – also supports helping U.S. women with reproductive health services in areas affected by the virus, which can be transmitted through intercourse and cause birth defects. Majorities of Democrats and independents back that proposal along with 46 percent of Republicans, the Kaiser poll found.

But in crafting a legislative response, common ground is elusive.

More than four months ago, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funds to address the Zika threat through vaccine development, mosquito abatement, contraception and maternal care. Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., of Sarasota supports funding the full amount.

But Senate Democrats recently rejected a $1.1 billion Zika bill from Republicans in the House of Representatives. Democrats didn’t like its funding level, nor that it would bar private family-planning organizations, including Planned Parenthood, from getting federal funds to provide Zika-related reproductive health services.

While no local mosquito-borne cases have been reported in the U.S., 934 U.S. travelers have acquired the virus in other countries, including 13 cases that were sexually transmitted, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. territories, however, have reported 2,020 locally acquired cases, including 1,970 in Puerto Rico alone.

Cases among pregnant women include 287 in the U.S. and 250 in U.S. territories.

In the absence of federal emergency funding, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has made $26.2 million in state funds available for mosquito surveillance and spraying, training for mosquito control personnel and other Zika preparedness services.

With a $3 million budget, Lesser’s department is fully funded and ready for mosquito season, he said.

So far, no Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which thrive in urban areas, have been caught in Bradenton, Palmetto or the swampy area north of Palmetto.

But if the notorious ankle biters gain a foothold in a neighboring county or city that’s short on mosquito-control resources, the insects could easily breed their way into the Bradenton area, Lesser said. That’s why extra funding from Congress is so important.

“It’s beyond time for Congress to come together to address this,” said a statement this week from Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “We’ve seen this coming from a mile away. There are nearly 1,000 cases in the U.S. already, and it could get much more severe if we don’t get serious about slowing the outbreak immediately.”

Helicopter and truck-mounted spraying in downtown Bradenton and Palmetto several weeks ago has cut the numbers of aegypti mosquitoes locally, Lesser said.

“It’s only in people’s backyard where this mosquito would originate,” Lesser said.

The other Zika-bearing mosquito, Aedes albopictus, is more prevalent in northern Florida and mid-Atlantic states from the District of Columbia to New York, Lesser said.

Unlike mosquitoes that are more deliberate in their feeding habits, aegypti are known to be nervous, serial snackers.

“They will sneak a small bite from your ankle. And if you twitch your ankle, not in even response to the mosquito bite, the mosquito will quickly fly away from you and then go land on somebody else,” Lesser said. “And if that person twitches or moves, it’ll fly away from them. That’s why this mosquito is so effective at transmitting Zika, because it can bite many people in a very short period of time.”

Mosquito advice

Most mosquitoes feed at sunset and sunrise, but Aedes aegypti also may bite in the daytime. The Florida Department of Health advises:

  • Use insect repellent and wear long sleeves, socks and long pants.
  • Windows and doors should have proper screening.
  • Standing water should be drained around the home. Even a bottle cap full of water is a breeding ground.