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TRACKING A KILLER RESEARCHERS FIND WEST NILE'S DIRECTION.

Byline: Susan Abram Staff Writer

SYLMAR - In a sterile, windowless laboratory, mosquitoes collected from parks, golf courses and even some back yards across the region sit on counters.

Scientists with the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District examine the bugs - some dried in jars, some buzzing under nets and some rendered comatose for study. A dead crow awaiting testing sits in the lab refrigerator, next to a canned sports drink.

The scientists' assignment is to monitor the potentially deadly West Nile virus sweeping along the West Coast carried by mosquitoes and birds. So far, 13 people in California have died of the virus.

The crew is working long hours these days as endless calls come in to pick up dead crows - sometimes up to 15 birds at a time. Two vector ecologists, Paul O'Connor and Jacqueline Spoehel, find themselves at the front line of detecting the virus. They work under the summer's sweltering heat, but say that for bug scientists, at least, it's an exciting time.

``That's why we're willing to work 10- to 12-hour days,'' Spoehel said. ``We want to be able to protect people. We're hoping that we won't have any more human cases and deaths.''

Indeed in California, at least, West Nile virus and its mysterious transmission provide a challenge for vector ecologists, who say they are experiencing science in the making while also helping to find hot spots quickly, before the virus claims another life. Though dead birds - about 24,000 birds countywide, mostly crows, have died of the virus this year - are an indicator that West Nile could be in an area, it's the mosquito that holds all the answers.

``The real mystery is how it travels,'' Spoehel said.

On a map in the lab, she pointed to Northridge and the Sepulveda Basin, two known hot spots. So far, the virus has all but leapt over Santa Clarita. Though a few dead crows found there have tested positive, no infected mosquitoes have been found.

``Most people attribute West Nile virus to crows and they hear more about the dead crow pick-up program and that's all they think we do,'' said Vector Control spokeswoman Stephanie Miladin. ``They don't think more of the mosquito aspect. What they (Spoehel and O'Connor) do is extremely important.''

The scientists collect mosquitoes and separate them into vials called ``mosquito pools.'' The bugs are sent to the University of California, Davis, for actual testing.

The two comb the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys in their van, working the golf courses, public parks, the Los Angeles County Zoo, and upon request, back yards. Their lives have become an endless, daily cycle of trapping, gathering and separating mosquitoes, as well as collecting dead birds, bleeding chickens and conducting occasional tests.

But neither of them minds.

``We have for years and years looked for St. Louis encephalitis and Western equine encephalitis, but now with West Nile, we have an opportunity and a responsibility,'' O'Connor said. ``We've always been mandated to control mosquitoes, but this puts us in a whole new light.''

A recent batch of mosquitoes trapped at the Van Norman Reservoir near Granada Hills proved surprising - an ``inornata,'' a winter mosquito usually found later in the year and a culex restuans, a mosquito species rare in California.

Under the power of a microscope, the fuzzy antennae of the comatose inornata twitch. The tiny mosquito is coming to as O'Connor pinches the slender, dark insect gently with a tweezer.

The research in Sylmar helps Vector Control decide whether an area should be ``fogged,'' sprayed with a pesticide.

``We've come close to fogging, but nobody wants that,'' O'Connor said. The virus first appeared in 1999 in New York, and has since blanketed the nation.

According to health experts, the virus is spread to humans from the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes are infected by biting a bird that carries the virus. Most mosquitoes do not carry the virus, and most people bitten by a mosquito do not become infected with West Nile. The virus is not contagious from person to person, health officials emphasized.

Susan Abram, (661) 257-5257

susan.abram(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Los Angeles County vector ecologist Jacqueline Spoehel holds a jar containing thousands of dead mosquitoes, while one insect, top, sits under the harsh light of a microscope, ready for testing at the county Vector Control office in Sylmar.

(3) Mosquitoes captured in traps sit in the county Vector Control office in Sylmar awaiting testing.

(4 -- 5 -- ran in SAC edition only) At left, mosquitoes are sorted by type and gender. Above, Vector Control field lab assistant Tracey Rostamlou places blood samples from chicken on test strips as vector ecologist Jacqueline Spoehel draws blood in the background.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 13, 2004
Words:798
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