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Mosquito warriors

May/June 2006 California Country magazine

Two men make a career out of battling the dangerous threat of West Nile Virus.



Unlikely partners take on West Nile Virus


 

Except for their similar peppered beards, David Brown and Tim Johnson appear to have little in common.

At one time, Johnson was an up-and-coming executive for a legendary snack-food empire, while Brown was busy turning his boyhood fascination with bugs into a career in the great outdoors.

But these days, the two men are committed to a mutual goal. Together they've emerged as mosquito warriors battling one of the most serious health threats in recent history: West Nile virus.

As president and chief executive officer of the California Rice Commission, Johnson is no stranger to the little vampires that swarm the Sacramento Valley's flooded rice fields every year. But the emergence of West Nile virus has upped the ante of one of nature's greatest nuisances. Containing the disease meant growers would need to change some of what they do in their fields, including how they manage their water and land.

"It became apparent to us, as West Nile moved toward California, that we were going to have a challenge within the ag and urban interface, that place where our fields meet people's houses," said Johnson, who years ago jettisoned his marketing job with Frito-Lay for a career in agriculture. "We began by evaluating what role the rice industry played in the production of mosquitoes and what we could do to ensure that fewer mosquitoes would be produced in our fields."

Brown, manager of the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District, has already made a long career of hunting down the bloodthirsty insects and other disease-carrying pests. But in recent years, West Nile virus has elevated the urgency of his work.

"West Nile is very serious, but there are other very serious pathogens out there that mosquitoes can transmit," said Brown, whose vector district is one of 64 in California. "While I won't say West Nile is the big one, I would say it is a wake-up call that at any time, we could have a pathogen that could spread to the human population. This could be the start of what we may be seeing in the future."

The Sacramento Valley's abundant rice crop is world renowned. With fields that cover more than 500,000 acres, the valley yields some of the globe's finest short- and medium-grain rice. It also provides what is arguably an environmentalist's dream: a home for more than 235 species of shorebirds and wildlife.

But where wildlife flourishes, mosquitoes are likely to follow. With an inrush of urban neighbors right next door to the valley's agricultural community, Brown and Johnson understood the difficulty they would have in trying to modify people's behavior with regard to mosquito management and protection.

"We have challenges because we've got a lot of folks moving in who are not used to living in such close proximity to agriculture," Brown said. "So we're doing what we can to make sure we get our message out: You're in an area where there are some potential mosquitoes. Let's make sure you're not producing them."

Oftentimes, mosquito-producing culprits exist in urban backyards and gardens where water accumulates in rain gutters, tires, flowerpots, birdbaths and fishponds, all likely breeding sites for the critters, Brown noted.

"The reality is that there are many sources of mosquitoes," Johnson said. "In fact, some of the highest incidences of West Nile virus occur in places like Los Angeles and Riverside counties, and there's not an acre of rice or wetland in those regions. So I think what we learned is that it's not just an ag problem and it's not just an urban problem. But everybody had things that they needed to do to be a part of the solution."

Of course, mosquitoes and the diseases they carry are nothing new to California. Long before statehood, Native Americans living in the wetlands and marsh areas were forced to migrate to higher ground when the so-called "Black Cloud" descended upon them each spring. Many newcomers who had the fever for riches during the Gold Rush succumbed to a different kind of fever: mosquito-borne malaria. By 1915, mosquitoes in California had become such a menace that the state Legislature adopted the Mosquito Abatement Act to protect the public from the deadly insects.

"It's clear that the problems with mosquitoes were here long before we had rice fields," said Johnson. "But because mosquitoes breed in water, we knew that our aquatic crop was a place they'd find very attractive. We wanted to step up and share in the responsibility of helping prevent the spread of West Nile virus."

The newest of the mosquito-borne diseases to plague the nation in recent years, West Nile virus made its U.S. debut in New York in 1999 and quickly crossed the continent on the bodies of migrating birds.

When the virus arrived in California in 2003, it struck first in Imperial, Los Angeles and Riverside counties, where three people contracted the disease. West Nile cases accelerated at an alarming rate in 2004 with 830 human infections in 23 counties, while all 58 counties reported some form of West Nile activity. There were 28 fatalities that year.

The 2005 mosquito season brought more illness to California with 929 human cases reported, 18 of which were fatal. And the epicenter of it all: the Sacramento Valley, where Sacramento County alone racked up 177 human cases.

All along, the severity of the situation was not lost on health officials and was certainly taken into account when Brown and Johnson met two years before the outbreak reached Northern California.

First over coffee, then in increasingly high-powered meetings with other vector officials, Johnson and Brown formulated a plan to battle the West Nile threat in the Sacramento Valley. As mosquito warriors united, the alliance would be the first agriculture/vector partnership in California, something they both agree was beneficial for residents of the entire state.

But they also acknowledge their partnership began as an uneasy one.

"You've got a regulator and a regulated community faced with hard challenges," Johnson said. "David and I were two different folks with two different points of view. In the beginning, I think we were just hoping to get through. But it developed into what I consider a real working partnership."

With the help of the University of California, the valley's rice growers early on adopted a set of "best management practices" to effectively control mosquito populations in and around their fields.

Vector districts also use an approach known as integrated pest management, which combines biological, cultural, physical and chemical tactics to keep bug numbers down.

But the hardest challenge was finding the funds to effectively fight the West Nile threat in a budget-strapped state. Tools included such expensive items as mosquitofish, which have a ravenous appetite for the insects' larvae. In addition, constant public outreach efforts had to be conducted to teach the California public how to "fight the bite."

The outgoing Johnson and the more reserved Brown formed a team that eventually included the California Waterfowl Association and Ducks Unlimited. Meetings with all the vector managers throughout Northern California were held, and Johnson and Brown headed to the state Capitol to lobby for funding. The end result of that effort was $12 million in statewide funding for vector control districts. Then, along with their partners, the pair traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for an additional $8 million to benefit all vector control districts in the state. Work continues at the federal level.

"We're pretty proud that we've ended up helping places in California where not one grain of rice is growing," Johnson said. "We know that West Nile is bigger than rice. But it felt great to make a difference--and we're going to continue our efforts to be part of the solution to a problem that impacts all of California."

Brown said he believes the men will always have a connection, and perhaps their efforts will inspire rural residents and their urban neighbors with a shared mission to battle disease-spreading mosquitoes.

"We need to continue to remind people that they should practice individual responsibility--old tires, birdbaths, neglected flowerpots that were flooded and forgotten," he said. "Everyone needs to play their part."

Like it or not, West Nile virus is here to stay, Brown added, and the need for abatement in California will never abate.

"We now live in a world where someone can take a plane into our state from the other side of the world in just a few hours--unintentionally bringing with them new diseases, many of which can be carried by mosquitoes," he said. "And there are other diseases to worry about, such as Western equine encephalitis, St. Louis encephalitis and malaria. We need constant vigilance and enhanced partnerships to protect ourselves, and that need will never be satisfied."

What's ahead for West Nile Virus
This year's abnormally wet winter coupled with the warming temperatures of spring kicked off mosquito season early, and many vector control and health officials are predicting that West Nile virus will hit some state regions hard in 2006.

"Winter storms brought plenty of water, and having plenty of water means that we will have potentially plenty of agriculture, plenty of wetlands and plenty of available water for the summer activities that can produce mosquitoes," said David Brown, manager of the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District.

His district was among the first to confirm the presence of the virus in a dead bird as early as mid-March this year. Confirmations in other districts quickly followed, and vector officials are urging all Californians to heed this early warning sign and work together to reduce mosquito populations.

While Brown and other experts agree the disease will eventually hit a plateau when the population achieves a certain level of immunity, they cannot say for sure whether the state has reached that point yet.

"It's yet to be determined what kind of year we're going to have," said Tim Johnson, who heads the California Rice Commission.

Brown added, "If we have rains all the way up until June, and then followed by record temperatures in July, I'm going to be very concerned."

Johnson said rice growers will continue their efforts to minimize mosquito production.

"We already know what we need to do. Our management practices are in place," Johnson said. "The rice commission will continue to work closely with the vector district to secure state and federal funding to maintain the momentum. West Nile is still a statewide problem that calls for statewide solutions."

Ching Lee, Barbara Arciero and Ann Schmidt-Fogarty are reporters for the California Farm Bureau Federation. They can be reached at 800-698-FARM or clee@cfbf.com, barciero@cfbf.com or aschmidt@cfbf.com.


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