With mosquitoes pestering this year even more than usual, health officials are cautioning Tampa Bay residents to guard against West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses.
The Hillsborough County Health Department plans to remind people this week to use mosquito repellent and get rid of standing water where mosquitoes can breed around their homes. Health officials are responding to a statewide rise in cases of West Nile virus, which has recently stricken eight people around Jacksonville.
So far, the Tampa Bay region has not reported any infections. But in northwest Hillsborough, a chicken used to monitor for the virus has tested positive for West Nile.
"Because of increased activity, we felt it prudent to remind the public of the possible dangers that exist with mosquitoes, especially this time of year," Hillsborough Health Department spokesman Steve Huard said.
West Nile virus generally causes mild illness characterized by headache, fever, pain and fatigue. But in rare cases, it can lead to neurological damage, paralysis or death.
And this year's weather patterns have bred a pesky crop of mosquitoes. Salt marsh mosquitoes proliferated this summer — thanks to hot temperatures and an unusually high tide. Their bites, however, were more of a nuisance than a health threat, since these mosquitoes don't transmit diseases such as West Nile virus.
But now the combination of a prolonged dry spell, followed by the rainy season, has created conditions ripe for spreading disease. Mosquito-borne viruses are fostered when birds and mosquitoes cluster around the same water sources, then spread out when water becomes more plentiful, said Nancy Iannotti, operations manager for Pinellas County Mosquito Control.
"Now that it's getting wet, it's ideal conditions for spread, if there is a virus," she said, adding that no one knows what may happen. "All it takes is one bite to become infected."
The good news: To date, Pasco County has reported no West Nile activity. Pinellas and Hillsborough officials stress that activity is greatest in other parts of the state.
But it never hurts to take precautions. No one wants to see a repeat of the 2005 outbreak when Pinellas reported 18 West Nile cases — out of 21 across Florida.
"It's always something to watch out for," said Andrea Castillo, infectious disease surveillance manager for the Pinellas County Health Department. "Protect yourself against being bitten."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.