Mosquitoes

(This column was first published in the August 27, 2001 Buffalo News.)

How soon we forget!

It seems only weeks since we were all deeply concerned about that latest pathogen, West Nile Virus. Now we give it little thought. The malady appears to have migrated to the South, to states like Florida and Louisiana, so why worry? A number of bird de aths, a few cases of human infection and even a human death or two along the Atlantic Seaboard won't hurt us here in Buffalo.

I'm glad that I am not a health officer or a politician, because I see problems lurking just over the horizon.

We have been most fortunate this summer. Our uncomfortable heat and our lawn-ruining drought have reduced our mosquito population to near zero. Even people living near wetlands are spending time in their backyards without having to douse themselves wit h Deet, spray their clothing with pyrethrums and wear head-nets.

But, global warming or not, don't count on this means of escape next year. And don't think that West Nile Virus is the only possible pathogen. Mosquito-borne sicknesses -- in the Rochester area called Genesee Fever -- killed hundreds of Erie Canal work ers there and in the Montezuma Swamps. Suppressed now, all it takes are a few immigrants or a few imported mosquitoes to bring those illnesses back.

A new book by Andrew Spielman and Michael D'Antonio, "Mosquito: A Natural History of our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe" (Hyperion, 2001) makes clearer what we face: "This insect and the pathogens that it carries have proven to be hardy, clever, and re lentless. Today, despite all our technology and science, mosquitoes may pose a risk to health virtually anywhere in the world. In fact, our troubles with mosquitoes are getting worse, making more people sick and claiming more lives, millions of lives, eve ry year. Drug-resistant malaria plagues the tropics. And many regions that were once considered fully cleansed of mosquito-borne pathogens have recently begun to suffer these plagues once again."

And they're not just talking about the tropics. We've got trouble right here in (Niagara) River city.

I am very worried about how this will play out. We never seem to plan ahead for predictable situations like this and then when we are beset with the problems we battle ferociously about what course to take. We can see this happening now in New York Cit y as environmentalists fight pest control agents over spraying.

The call is already out to bring back DDT. Spielman and D'Antonio hint at their support even though they admit that this agent that nearly wiped out our eagles and made our fish unpalatable rapidly loses its power against mosquitoes.

And they never mention the other even more important problem with broad-spectrum insecticides like DDT. They reduce the population of the animals that prey on and thus control mosquito numbers faster than they kill the mosquitoes themselves. Thus as th e mosquitoes gain resistance, they have fewer enemies to combat.

In this way pesticides give only temporary and increasingly partial relief while making future problems worse. Unfortunately this has served the industry well. Larger and larger quantities of ever-stronger chemicals are required as problems worsen.

Although it has been purposely garbled by her opponents, that was the basic message of Rachel Carson in "Silent Spring."

So what should we do?

We should begin to prepare now while we have time to explore the issues and the available responses carefully. In doing so, our political leaders should call on the best possible representatives of health and environmental groups as well as similar peo ple from the pesticide industry.

Don't let's fumble this opportunity.

The last thing I want to say is I told you so.-- Gerry Rising