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Mosquitoes NJ: Warmer, wetter summers bring more bites, more killer viruses

APP.com (Asbury Park, NJ) logo APP.com (Asbury Park, NJ) 6/19/2020 Amanda Oglesby, Asbury Park Press
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Bret Ulozas sprays his yard for mosquitoes in the New Egypt section of Plumsted in order to keep the blood suckers at bay.

The 49-year-old applies insecticide to reduce the nuisance of mosquitoes, especially as his family spends more time in the backyard due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there is more lurking in the woods along the edge of his property than the annoyance of bug bites.

"There is that small fear of mosquito-borne illness," said Ulozas, adding that he wants to protect his daughter. "Mostly, we would get bit up. We would get chased around the yard."

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Not far from his New Egypt home, a potentially deadly virus in the local mosquito population prompted Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst officials to order the spraying of insecticide last September around their United Communities Housing development. 

The virus they found in mosquitoes around that military housing development in New Egypt was Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), a disease that kills up to a third of people who develop symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The mosquitoes in New Jersey — larvae nursed by wet springs and humid summers — have for years posted a health hazard to residents here.

In 1959, the largest ever outbreak of EEE was recorded in New Jersey, when 32 human cases were discovered across an eight-week period. Of those cases, 22 people died and many of the survivors suffered neurological disabilities afterward.

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Five years later, 106 cases of St. Louis Encephalitis were documented in New Jersey, according to Rutgers University Agricultural Experiment Station. The disease, like EEE, can cause swelling of the brain, tiredness, nausea, vomiting, headache and fever, according to the CDC. In rare cases, it can cause death or long-term disability.

Since the 1950s and '60s, New Jersey residents have protected themselves from this deadly pest through comforts of modern living: window screens that kept mosquitoes out of homes and air conditioning that dried out and killed the flying insects. These measures helped reduce mosquito-borne disease outbreaks in the decades since, said Dina M. Fonseca, director of Rutgers University's Center for Vector Biology. 

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However, that trend is changing, Fonseca said. In the past 20 years or so, cases of mosquito-borne diseases in New Jersey are on the rise.

“While in the past, the active season for mosquitoes used to be June 1 to Sept. 30. We are now noticing … that the season is starting earlier," said Fonseca. “We’re not getting the hard frosts that tend to kill off the adults.” 

In addition, humans are living deeper in the forests where mosquitoes live than ever before, and new invasive mosquitoes that thrive in human habitats are moving into the state's urban and suburban environments, she said.

The changes are creating more opportunity for humans to get infected from a bite, Fonseca said.

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Last year New Jersey officials reported four human cases of EEE, which is “a very rare, but incredibly deadly virus," Fonseca said.

a close up of a sign with a mountain in the background: Mosquitoes Warning © Courtesy of Saint Peter's Healthcare System Mosquitoes Warning

Those four human cases of EEE required an average of 24 days of hospitalization, and three out of four of the cases required continuing long-term care or rehabilitation after hospitalization, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.

It's not the only disease carried by mosquitoes in the state that can threaten human life.

Last year:

  • Eight people in New Jersey tested positive for West Nile virus, and seven of them required an average of 10 days hospitalization, according to the state Department of Health. While most people infected with West Nile Virus show no symptoms, about 1 in 150 people with the infection develop serious, and sometimes fatal, symptoms, according to the CDC.
  • Last year in New Jersey, 203,146 mosquitoes collected from more than 10,000 pools were tested for viruses. Of those, 73 pools across 13 counties had mosquitoes that carried the EEE virus. That was higher than the previous six years.
  • Last year, mosquitoes from 365 pools tested positive for West Nile virus. The previous year, 1,325 pools sampled were found to contain mosquitoes with West Nile virus.

Those viruses stick in the mind of Michael Senyk, superintendent of the Ocean County Mosquito Extermination Commission, as he and colleagues trap mosquitoes and collect samples.

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Multiple times each week throughout the warmest months, the commission's helicopters hover and dip over the marshlands of Barnegat Bay. The copters are often all that can reach the shallow, muddy pools where mosquitoes breed. Their larvae can hatch in as little as three to four days, said Senyk.

The commission staff take samples from those pools and collect insects that will be tested for a variety of illness-causing viruses and pathogens. Other times, the helicopters hover overhead, spraying chemicals to kill the larvae.

a small plane parked on the side of a dirt field: A helicopter sprays insecticide across marshes by Barnegat Bay. © Courtesy of the Ocean County Mosquito Extermination Commission A helicopter sprays insecticide across marshes by Barnegat Bay.

“Our major concern in Ocean County is ... West Nile virus and EEE," said Senyk. "All our test results so far (this season) have been negative.” 

Most Eastern equine encephalitis-carrying mosquitoes thrive in the roots of maple swamps in New England, but they also have found New Jersey's coastal habitat to be a sufficient place to breed.

Last year, 36 people across eight states tested positive for the virus, and 13 of those people died, according to the National Institutes of Health. In November, the federal agency described EEE and other mosquito-borne diseases as a "growing threat."

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It's a particularly difficult virus to eliminate from an area, because migrating birds carry it to mosquitoes across the East Coast, said Fonseca, of Rutgers. The mosquitoes that transmit the disease are typically bird-feeding mosquitoes, but in some cases, they can bite humans, she said.

The migrating bird populations that spend their summers along New Jersey's coast, and the tens of thousands of tourists and residents that head outside in the warm months, provide the blood meals that female mosquitoes need to lay eggs.

a helicopter flying over a field: An employee of the Ocean County Mosquito Extermination Commission samples pools. The insects collected will be tested for a variety of disease-causing viruses that can infect humans. © Courtesy of the Ocean County Mosquito Extermination Commission. An employee of the Ocean County Mosquito Extermination Commission samples pools. The insects collected will be tested for a variety of disease-causing viruses that can infect humans.

“Almost no one knows that malaria was once running rampant (here),” said Senyk. “If it wasn’t for what we do (with mosquito control efforts), season in season out, there would be a lot more cases of mosquito-borne illness."

Dr. Melvin P. Weinstein, co-director of the Microbiology Laboratory at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, said cases of mosquito-borne illness are still somewhat rare in New Jersey.

“We might see 3 to 10 cases (of West Nile virus), and 10 would be really high, in any given season," he said.

Most people who do get infected show only mild symptoms; however, older adults and those who have had organ transplants or other serious health conditions are at higher risk of serious illness, Weinstein said.

Climate change could increase the number of mosquito-borne illnesses seen in New Jersey hospitals, if a trend of warmer and wetter summers continues, Weinstein said. Some tropical mosquito species — some that carry diseases like dengue fever and Zika — have already moved into portions of the southern United States, he said.

"If global warming continues, then those mosquito populations that you may only see in Florida and Louisiana, in the southern United States, you may start to see them in the mid-South and ultimately, we could see them in New Jersey," said Weinstein. “How fast will that happen? I don’t have enough expertise to answer that question.” 

Senyk and Fonseca say a dry spring has given New Jersey's human population a reprieve from the typical start of mosquito season. As the summer heat and humidity climb, mosquito populations will continue to grow, despite the best efforts to control them, they said. Homeowners can help reduce their populations by emptying flower pots, garbage cans and containers around the yard that hold water.

Without water, mosquitoes cannot breed, they said.

And fewer mosquitoes mean less chance of contracting a mosquito-borne illness, they said.

This time of year, "it’s all about keeping the population down," Senyk.

Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, aoglesby@gannettnj.com or 732-557-5701.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Mosquitoes NJ: Warmer, wetter summers bring more bites, more killer viruses

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