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Shaker Heights Confronts West Nile Virus

Thursday, March 14, 2002 at 2:12 PM

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To spray or not to spray - that's the question a group of residents and city leaders in Shaker Heights have been asking since last summer when the community was hit hard by the West Nile Virus. As 90.3 WCPN's Renita Jablonski reports, now the community is getting ready to launch a city-wide prevention plan to protect residents from mosquitoes carrying the deadly disease.

Renita Jablonski: West Nile Virus appeared in the U.S. in 1999 in New York. It was first discovered in Uganda in the late 1930’s. Mosquitoes become infected with the virus when they bite a bird that’s a carrier, then the mosquito can pass it on to other animals - including humans - and while the risk is low, the bite can lead to encephalitis, or an inflammation of the brain, which can be fatal. These are the types of things that Shaker Heights residents learned at a special meeting this week.

Ryan Sullivan: I think we have to be careful because there’s no real good models as a number of speakers said, for really accurately assessing you know, quanitatively, what the risk is here.

RJ: That’s Ryan Sullivan. He’s an organic chemist and co-chair of the chemical intervention committee of the West Nile Virus Community Task Force of Shaker Heights. Shaker resident Rosemary Woodruff helped organize the group last fall.

Rosemary Woodruff: The idea came from when I found out we were going to be sprayed by the next afternoon we had a rally with 50 people so the idea’s out there. The community does not neccesarily want to have pesticides dumped on them but we do want to have more knowledge about what’s happening before that happens.

RJ: Dr. Scott Frank is director of health for the city. He called for the use of pesticides after Shaker experienced an unusually high amount of West Nile cases. Last year, 279 dead birds in Ohio tested positive for West Nile - 40% were found in Shaker Heights.

Scott Frank: We actually had been expecting West Nile Virus to come into the state, we just didn’t expect it to all be in Shaker Heights.

RJ: And now Frank is on board with the West Nile Virus Communtiy Task Force to look for different alternatives to deal with the pesky bugs, with spraying at the very bottom of the list.

SF: There is a change in thinking about the threshold for adulticiding is three-fold, first that we have not yet proven that adulticiding in suburban-urban areas is effective, if it’s proven that it’s effective than we have to re-address this issue.

RJ: Frank, and others like Ryan Sullivan, say since they have not seen any concrete evidence that using pesticide dramatically reduces the number of West Nile Virus-infected mosquitoes - that’s exactly why the task force is proposing other methods of prevention.

RS: Basically what we’re talking about is ground-based truck spraying. We’ve analyzed a number, we’ve contacted the CDC, they’ve sent us information on studies and what we find in those studies is a real lack of concrete evidence this is effective in controlling mosquito pollutions.

RJ: So instead, the group hopes the city will adopt a plan to carry out a major public education campaign, informing people of the risks, urging residents to eliminate standing water in places like gutters and bird baths where mosquitoes are most likely to breed, and to do things like wearing light clothing and long sleeves when mosquitoes are swarming. There’s even a couple catchy slogans like “Every backyard counts” and “NIMBY” - or, “Not in my backyard.” Director of Health Scott Frank says the more aware the community is, the safer the communtiy is.

SF: I think the lethality of the disease really gets into why we pay such attention to it. One in 5,000 means six residents in Shaker Heights so if we had the highest, if we matched the highest level of risk that has been demonstrated in other communities, that would be a very significant thing for our community to have six of our neighbors permanently disabled or dead as a result of infection with West Nile Virus.

RJ: Frank says the challenge will be to present that message in a way that doesn’t scare residents. Barbara Barclay is a senior citizen living in Shaker - that’s the age group most at risk for West Nile. She attended this week’s town hall meeting presented by the task force that included a panel of experts talking about the virus and the proposed prevention plan. She, like most of the nearly 100 people at the meeting, does not fear contracting West Nile Virus but thinks it’s good to be informed.

Barbara Barclay: I live in Shaker and I wanted to find out what this was all about. I just wanted to find out how bad it is if it is bad.

RJ: Barclay says she’ll be back at the Shaker Heights Communtiy Center Wednesday evening when The West Nile Virus Community Task Force will hold a public forum to get feedback on their plan. Rosemary Woodruff says after public comments are gathered, the Response Plan will be presented to Shaker Heights City Council. Woodruff says while it will not likely require legislative action, she hopes to get council’s endorsement to put the plan into effect as soon as possible. No West Nile Virus related deaths have yet been reported in Ohio and Woodruff says she hopes the response plan will help keep it that way, and get other communities to take similar action. In Shaker Heights, Renita Jablonski, 90.3 WCPN News.

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