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West Nile, not Zika, main mosquito threat in Grand Forks

It's got Olympians scared to head to Rio de Janeiro this summer, but local officials say the Zika virus isn't likely to be a threat in Grand Forks County and surrounding areas this year.

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An aedes aegypti mosquitoe is seen Tuesday inside a test tube as part of a research on preventing the spread of the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases at a control and prevention center in Guadalupe, neighbouring Monterrey, Mexico.

It's got Olympians scared to head to Rio de Janeiro this summer, but local officials say the Zika virus isn't likely to be a threat in Grand Forks County and surrounding areas this year.

The Zika virus has been grabbing headlines for months, accompanied by images from Latin American of newborns with abnormally small heads and brain damage. Zika is spread through mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, and it has been known to be transmitted sexually in rare instances.

The Grand Forks Public Health Department, however, is not too concerned about the Zika virus coming up north.

"Those species have never been up here (in North Dakota). It's certainly something we'll test for," mosquito division manager Todd Hanson said.

Dr. Chris Henderson, a family physician with Altru Health System, said he expects to receive plenty of calls about Zika as the weather turns, but has had just one so far.

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"(The patient) mentioned he was traveling somewhere in the Caribbean in May for a friend's wedding," Henderson said. "If it's something you have to do, go ahead and do it. Like a wedding or a funeral, go ahead and go and just use proper protection."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best way to avoid infection is to prevent mosquito bites by using insect repellant containing DEET, wearing long sleeves and pants when outdoors and taking extra care from dusk to dawn.

"The disease itself isn't that dangerous," Henderson said, with Zika typically being treated like any other viral infection. "It's the resulting effects people have seen in newborn babies (that raise concern)."

Henderson said some of his colleagues have also heard concerns and continue to give advice based on the most current CDC reports.

Both the CDC and Hanson agree that West Nile is still the deadliest threat in the region.

According to the North Dakota Department of Health, there were 23 reported cases of the West Nile virus in the state last year. Eight of the 23 cases caused hospitalization, while one case was fatal.

Grand Forks County had one confirmed human case, while Burleigh County was the highest with five. Fifty-two percent of reported cases occurred in individuals 50 years or older.

In fact, Hanson said 37 pools, or groups, of mosquitoes tested positive for West Nile virus last year in the county.

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To combat the deadly virus, Hanson and his team of 40 seasonal employees are constantly surveilling the county, setting out 23 traps, many designed to decrease the population density.

The traps, which attract mosquitoes with a lightbulb and then use a fan to trap them in a kill jar, are checked regularly and their contents checked for evidence of West Nile.

"Once we see a higher population of the Culex tarsalis mosquito (the genus that carries the virus), we look to start spraying again," Hanson said.

Adulticiding, or spraying, costs $4,000 each time, and last year the department sprayed 14 times. While a significant expense-the program is funded by a $2.80 fee on a monthly utility bill-Hanson said the program is essential to public health.

"We're out there doing tests daily," Hanson said. "We're doing all we can to reduce the chance of West Nile virus."

Laura Cronquist, an epidemiologist with the North Dakota Department of Health, said it is tough to predict what to expect this mosquito season.

"Many different factors influence the local transmission of West Nile virus, such as increased temperature and specific precipitation patterns," she said, adding that the Culex tarsalis is a transient water mosquito. They prefer to lay their eggs in temporary pools of water, such as potholes, ground pools and irrigated land. "While a mild winter may have some effect on the number of West Nile cases in North Dakota, it is likely that adequate rainfall to provide ideal breeding conditions for transient water mosquitos will have a greater effect."

Hanson agreed, saying that wet conditions will allow the nuisance variety of mosquitoes to thrive, while those that carry West Nile do better in hotter, dryer conditions.

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"It's almost impossible to predict what kind of season we'll have," he said.

The Grand Forks Mosquito Control Program is planning its first spray of the season some time after May 16 when seasonal employees are available.

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