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No Labor Day holiday for mosquito-control workers as storm improves conditions for Zika spread

Hurricane Hermine toppled trees, deluged roads and knocked out power as it blew across Florida on Thursday night.

And some experts say the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida in 11 years could also complicate matters when it comes to Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that can cause devastating birth defects.

Florida is the only state where Zika is spreading by mosquitoes, namely the species known as Aedes aegypti. State health officials have confirmed 49 locally acquired cases, including one in Pinellas County.

"In the short term, (the storm) probably blew away a lot of the Aedes aegypti," said Joe Conlon, a technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association who lives in the Jacksonville area. "But in the longer term, it is going to create a lot of debris in which Aedes aegypti can breed."

And that, Conlon said, could mean a bumper crop of disease-carrying insects in the coming days.

"It puts a premium on two things," he added. "Rapid cleanup and people taking personal protective measures to keep from being bitten."

Only 20 percent of people who contract Zika show symptoms, which usually include fatigue, fever and eye redness. However, the virus is more worrisome for pregnant women, as it can have an irreversible effect on fetal brain development.

Since Zika began popping up in Florida in January, the state has confirmed 625 infections, including 80 involving pregnant women. Most have been related to travel to Latin America and the Caribbean, where Zika has been prevalent.

In Florida, state health officials think the virus is spreading within only two communities, both of which are in Miami-Dade County: Wynwood and South Beach. Still, mosquito control departments in the Tampa Bay region have been stepping up efforts to monitor and control the Aedes aegypti population.

Many expect to do even more in the aftermath of Hermine.

Dennis Moore, who oversees Pasco County Mosquito Control, said the 5 to 10 inches of rain that fell during Hurricane Hermine "will definitely present some challenges for us in the next week or so."

Among them: more mosquito larvae.

Female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes lay their eggs in vessels that contain water, but above the waterline. The eggs can survive for months. They hatch when submerged and develop in five days.

Moore said his team will be working both Sunday and the Labor Day holiday to kill the insects in their larval stage. "If we can catch them there, that's great," he said. "They'll never develop into adults."

The Hillsborough County Mosquito Department will also be busy, operations manager Ron Montgomery said. The department had suspended spraying on Tuesday because of the rain. But technicians started up again Friday and plan to continue through the weekend.

"I've got the entire crew coming in on Monday," Montgomery said. "We're going to be aggressively spraying all standing water that we can to head off the hatch of the mosquitoes."

It is critical that homeowners do their part, said Rob Krueger, an entomology and education support specialist for Pinellas County Mosquito Control and Vegetation Management.

"The governor as well as mosquito control continue to urge citizens to drain standing water around their homes, especially man-made containers where Aedes aegypti are known to reproduce," he said.

That includes birdbaths, tires, kiddie pools — even bottle caps.

Gov. Rick Scott stressed the point during a briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center on Friday. He also urged residents to wear long sleeves and use bug repellent in the aftermath of the storm.

"Combating this virus is something we must do together, and everyone must do their part to take precaution in order to protect our state," he said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

No Labor Day holiday for mosquito-control workers as storm improves conditions for Zika spread 09/02/16 [Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2016 9:28pm]
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