We must get better at mosquito control

Florida has one of the most aggressive mosquito-control programs in the country, and yet, we are swamped with mosquitoes in South Florida; mosquitoes often carrying disease.

On July 9, health officials reported the state’s first case of locally acquired dengue this year: a 50-year-old woman bitten by one of these mosquitoes in Miami-Dade County. Now South Florida is taking center stage again reporting the nation’s first locally acquired cases of chikungunya: a 50 year-old man in Palm Beach and a 41-year-old woman in Miami-Dade.

In central Florida we are in the midst of an outbreak of another mosquito-transmitted disease, Eastern equine encephalitis, which causes an inflammation of the brain.

Is our response to mosquitoes too little and too late? The Aedes mosquitoes that can transmit dengue, chikungunya and even yellow fever are prevalent in Miami-Dade, particularly in urban and suburban areas. Dengue has clearly entered the mosquito population in Miami-Dade, and now it is clear that chikungunya has established itself in our mosquitoes as well.

Studies have demonstrated that one mosquito can harbor both viruses, and it is entirely possible for someone to be infected with both dengue and chikungunya from the bite of a single, doubly infected mosquito.

Mosquito surveillance is one thing that Florida does exceptionally well. Our mosquito-monitoring program is a process designed to help officials recognize developing public-health risks so that the Florida Department of Health can make appropriate predictions and plans. But prevention is better than planning, and for that we need more control of mosquitoes.

The Miami-Dade Mosquito Control Division does use trucks to spray environmentally-friendly insecticides — when it can. It also offers the far more costly aerial spraying on the edges of towns near the Everglades — when it must. Still, much of the control in Miami-Dade is on a “complaint-driven program,” and that doesn’t always work. Also, the bulk of spraying is for adult mosquitoes and, really, we want to get at the larvae. They do have larvicides and at times use them — but not often enough.

It is time for a citizen’s campaign, aided by the state and local government, to eliminate the pests from our environment. The government needs a health promotion project that targets mosquito breeding grounds and adult mosquito resting areas.

What would it look like? First, it would ensure through an education and awareness campaign that everyone knows how to get rid of mosquitoes and larvae in their yards, hedges, gardens and businesses. Then it would provide easy access to environmentally safe larvicides, mosquito-eating fish and mosquito-repelling plants that residents can make part of their arsenal in a community-wide war against this flying menace.

We can’t wait for a major deadly epidemic. Each and every one of us must start to take action now to control this threat. As an old African proverb reminds us, if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.

Aileen M. Marty, M.D., is professor of infectious diseases at the Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.