RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Warm weather is here and that means mosquitoes will soon be, too.
North Carolina is no stranger to mosquito-borne illnesses, but arguably the most talked about right now is the Zika virus.
“It gives you fever, muscle aches, red eyes and a rash,” explained state epidemiologist Megan Davies.
State health officials are warning everyone who is planning on traveling to protect themselves against mosquitos. But CBS North Carolina Investigates found out when it comes to tracking the bugs, the state falling behind.
Tracking mosquitoes and Zika
If you want to learn about mosquito-borne diseases, you want to talk to Dr. Stephanie Richards, an assistant professor at East Carolina University.
“We do have the mosquitoes here that can transmit these pathogens,” Richards said. “We have it in all 100 counties in North Carolina.”
Right now, she’s studying the Aedes Albopictus, better known as the Asian Tiger Mosquito.
They can carry Zika and other viruses.
“It lays its’ eggs in artificial containers in people’s backyards, buckets, tarps, plant pots, anywhere where a teaspoon of water would be,” Richards explained.
North Carolina has had a least five confirmed cases of Zika, but none of them have originated form the state.
They’ve all come from people who have traveled out of the country.
“It is a little scary to get bit my mosquitoes these days because you never know what kind of pathogens you’re going to encounter,” Richards said.
A peek in the fridge in her lab will already make you itch.
“We just got our Zika virus in,” said Richards.
She is studying the mosquito from larva to full adult.
“Having a good surveillance program and a mosquito control program is very important,” Richards said.
She is also a member of the North Carolina Mosquito and Vector Control Association, a non-profit organization promoting public health through mosquito and vector control in the state.
With that said, you might expect that the state is tracking mosquitos right?
The state currently does not track mosquitoes. CBS North Carolina Investigates asked State Health Director Dr. Randall Williams about tracking mosquitoes. He said DHHS is currently putting a new surveillance program into place.
For years, the state had its own pest management control program, but with budget cuts lawmakers disbanded it in 2011.
“In the past they were because we did not have the emerging issue that we see now,” Williams explained.
He said in the past, DHHS has relied on local counties and municipalities to track the insects.
The last bit of money left over for mosquito control was finally dissolved in 2014.
Williams said DHHS is now rearranging its budget to fit the program in.
“We have already started the process of hiring and putting people in place using our own resources,” he explained.
Williams said the state will soon hire two medical entomologists.
CBS North Carolina Investigates asked Richards if it’s dangerous that the state has cut its funding when diseases like Zika pop up.
“I think so,” Richards explained. “They’re planning to hire two state-level medical entomologists which is a great, but it’s going to take some time for those people to get up to speed on what’s going on in North Carolina. So we would lag behind.”
Eugene McRoy runs the vector control program in Beaufort County. It’s one of the few counties and cities that have decided to keep track of mosquitoes on its own.
“I was surprised they would cut that,” said McRoy. “The funds we were getting from the state, we don’t get those anymore so all our funding for mosquito work is done directly through the county,” he explained.
He said the state program not only helped financially, but it helped with emergency response. After events like Hurricane Irene, he said the state helped secure aerial sprays.
During the summer McRoy’s department will trap mosquitoes are on a weekly basis.
“We put them under the microscope and identify each one of those down to the species level,” McRoy explained.
This way they know what and where potential problem mosquitoes are.
“We have disease out there, and by having those funds it certainly helps to do what you can to prevent spreading,” McRoy said.
He says knowing where problem areas are prevents mass spreading of pesticides, and saves money.
Close medical monitoring
Although mosquito tracking was cut, the state is keeping a very close eye on confirmed Zika cases popping up in the state.
Williams made Zika a reportable disease, which means physicians have to report any suspected or confirmed cases to DHHS.
Currently the test for Zika is done by the CDC but soon North Carolina will be one of the first states to do the test locally.
“We’re one of 12 labs in the country considered an advanced lab so we’re gearing up to do the test in North Carolina,” Williams said.
Tracking, spraying, and surveillance could be the best defense we have against mosquito-borne illnesses aside from a vaccine.
“I’ve already had conversations with the people in the legislature, within state government so those conversations have already started,” said Williams.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but we need to make sure we sustain those positions even in low budget years,” said Richards “We’ve still got West Nile and what’s next on the horizon? We don’t know.”
The CDC and WHO is still studying the possible link between Zika virus and birth defects.
In the meantime, they are warning all travelers to protect themselves against mosquitoes.