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Mar 22, 2016 11:20 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town Trustees To Meet With County Vector Control About Zika Strategy

Mar 23, 2016 10:15 AM

The Southampton Town Trustees plan to meet with Suffolk County Vector Control officials on April 4 to learn more about the Zika virus and measures that could be taken to prevent an outbreak, including spraying larvicide.

Although it was planned some time ago, the meeting will take place on the heels of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of a six-step plan to combat the mosquito-borne virus, which is transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito in South America and Central America. That type of mosquito is not found in New York State, but a related species, Aedes albopictus, is. Scientists have not been able to determine if that mosquito can carry the virus.

The Zika virus can cause an illness that can be particularly harmful to pregnant women. The virus has been linked to birth defects, including brain damage and abnormally small heads, in babies whose mothers were infected. In healthy people, the virus has not proven to be life-threatening. Some of the symptoms of the Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.

“The state is taking aggressive action to reduce the risk of Zika transmission in New York,” Mr. Cuomo said in a press release. “We have put in place a first-in-the-nation action plan that will work to eliminate Zika at its source, reduce potential transmissions and safeguard expectant mothers against this dangerous disease.”

Part of the plan would be to distribute 100,000 larvicide tablets to residents in areas that could become affected by Zika virus. The tablets contain Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis solids, or BTIs. According to Kevin McAllister, founder of environmental group Defend H2O and a former Peconic Baykeeper, BTIs are fairly benign and safer than methoprene, another larvicide used by Vector Control that targets mosquitoes—and has been blamed by local environmentalists for damaging marine ecosystems.

State officials want residents to place the tablets in standing water, in containers like flower pots, and to remove other sources of standing water like old tires, clogged gutters and plastic containers, because Aedes mosquitoes breed in containers with clean water.

The governor wants to provide 20,000 Zika prevention kits—including larvicide tablets, insect repellent, condoms and educational materials—to health care professionals to distribute to pregnant women. The virus has also been found to be transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person.

Mr. Cuomo’s plan also involves trapping and testing the Aedes mosquito throughout the entire southern portion of New York. The state plans to set up 1,000 special traps to collect mosquitoes and test some 60,000 Aedes mosquitoes per month. If Zika is found, a rapid response team, including representatives of the State Department of Health, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, will inspect and spray the area and areas close by.

Whether the spray would be BTIs or methoprene has yet to be determined, according to he Superintendent of Vector Control in Suffolk County, Dominick Ninivaggi, who noted that Suffolk County does not yet have a plan. Mr. Ninivaggi did say that the type of spraying the county does in salt marshes—using methoprene—is not the same it would use to target the Zika virus.

Vector Control does not automatically spray when a harmful disease is found, Mr. Ninivaggi said. “We need to see examples,” he said, comparing the potential protocol for Zika to what is already in place for West Nile virus. “It’s detected every year, and pretty commonly, but that doesn’t mean it’s a high risk,” he said of West Nile.

Mr. McAllister has protested the use of methoprene—which kills mosquitoes but can also harm marine life, which has prompted two nearby states to limit its release in coastal areas. He has been trying to raise awareness among county officials of the harmful effects that methoprene could have on the marine environment since 2007, when a countywide mosquito spraying plan was first put in place. That program, dubbed the Suffolk County Vector Control and Wetlands Management Long-Term Plan, relies on spraying methoprene in wetlands across the East End.

According to Mr. McAllister, the larvicide can harm other insects and crustaceans, like juvenile blue claw crabs, that live in the habitats typically targeted by the spraying and are genetically similar. His fear is that if Zika is found, any restrictions on methoprene will be lifted by the county.

“They’re politically scared to do anything when there’s a threat out there,” Mr. McAllister said, explaining that if the threat of a mosquito-borne disease arises after a larvicide such as methoprene has been banned, the government will blame the ban.

“There’s a lag when the Environmental Protection Agency pulls a product,” he said. “There has to be instances of kill events, and, more importantly, you have to demonstrate by the use of the product that there is a documented health risk.

“All we can do is rely on the extensive scientific research out there,” he added.

Town Trustee Scott Horowitz suggested that having a meeting with the Suffolk County Vector Control will help get some of the facts out to the public.

“I think it’s a good idea to have an open dialogue, since public health issues, the health of our wetlands [and] ecosystems and water quality are paramount to the people of Southampton,” Mr. Horowitz said. “This way, we can get firsthand information and the opportunity to have questions and concerns answered.”

Town Trustee Eric Shultz said he really wants to find out if there are safe pesticides that don’t harm wetlands life the way that methoprene can.

“I want to know if this whole Zika virus scare is going to be creating a more ramped-up approach to our wetlands,” Mr. Horowitz agreed. “I want to get to the bottom of this, and the only way to do this is to get them here and get the public here as well, and get what the facts are and take it from there.”

Fear of the Zika virus has prompted the Suffolk County Department of Health to put out a travel alert to women of childbearing age and their partners, and sexually active men.

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