By Lindsey Rodrian
INDIANA -- In a mosquito-breeding wetland off Wayne Avenue, Thomas Norris sinks his work boots into stagnant water in a fight against West Nile virus on what may be the front lines of global climate change.
Norris, a state West Nile virus control program assistant and an Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate, has been setting traps for mosquitoes in Indiana County since 2002. And he has been finding the flying insects carrying the potentially deadly virus.
In 2010, six virus-carriers were found in Indiana County, according to the Pennsylvania West Nile Virus Control Program. The two most recent West Nile-infected mosquitoes were found near Northview Estates in White Township on Aug. 24 and Aug. 30, Norris said. A positive mosquito result was also discovered near Wayne Avenue in White Township, two at Floodway Park in Homer City and another one at a swamp in Homer City off Railroad Avenue.
No human cases of West Nile have been reported in the county. Should human infection occur, symptoms could include encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain; meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane around the brain and the spinal cord, and paralysis, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's what sends Norris in search of Culex, a common kind of mosquito that is the primary carrier of West Nile virus in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. All six West Nile carriers in Indiana County in 2010 were Culex, according to the state virus control program.
During an Oct. 5, 2010, interview at his office on Water Street, Norris demonstrated the tools of the mosquito-trapping trade. A storage building houses his inventory, which includes a trap for pregnant insects.
"This is a gravid trap, one of two traps that I use," said Norris, as he reached for a medium-sized gray plastic tackle box labeled "WNV Control Program."
The box resting is the perfect place for a pregnant mosquito to lay eggs. It contains a fan that creates an air current to suck mosquitoes in.
And it contains a secret ingredient that Norris calls "a tub of stink juice." The juice, created with fermented hay, attracts Culex.
"The stinkier the water the better," said Norris. "Culex just dig it."
But Culex seem to come and go in Indiana County. Before 2010, the period 2007-2009 turned up no positives in Norris' traps. But in 2006, a dozen positive mosquito samples were reported here, according to the state program.
The year 2006 ranked as the second warmest U.S. summer on record, according to the National Climatic Data Center, Pennsylvania experienced "much above normal" precipitation for that year, according to the center.
And 2010 set national and global records for temperature and precipitation. That summer was the second warmest on record globally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The federal agency also reported that 2010 precipitation was above average in the United States.
Increasing warmth and the wetness contribute to the local appearance of West Nile-carrying mosquitoes, according to Norris.
"Warmer temperatures, high rainfall, high humidity -- all will increase mosquito numbers," said Norris. "The virus as a separate entity, I believe, would increase, too, because with increased mosquito hosts, the virus will increase as well."
Norris said trapping and spraying chemicals (he's a certified pesticide applicator) can do only so much to prevent West Nile and to minimize climate-change effects in Indiana County.
"I think people should take the appropriate steps to minimize their carbon footprint," he said.
-- Lindsey Rodrian, a junior majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Pittsburgh.
Sidebar: Of budget cuts and bugs
The thought of someone being bitten by a mosquito and infected with West Nile virus is one of Thomas Norris's biggest fears. Another is his job security.
The future of Indiana County's West Nile Virus Control Program is iffy, said Norris in an Oct. 5 interview. The program depends on an annual grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
His program applies annually for DEP grant funds. All equipment used for the control program is owned by the county. But all overhead expenses are reimbursed by the DEP grant.
"Last year, they did a big-time cut," said Norris, "I think it was because the hard data was way down."
In 2009-2010, when West Nile virus programs in 28 Pennsylvania counties were cut, Norris feared for the future of Indiana County's program.
"Without the hard data and justification, this program will be cut," he said. "We barely made the cut last year."
-- By Lindsey Rodrian
Sidebar: West Nile timeline
1937 -- West Nile Virus first appeared in Uganda in 1937 and was named after the region in which it was found.
1999 -- The virus first was detected in the Western Hemisphere in New York.
2000 -- Twelve other states along the Eastern Seaboard, including Pennsylvania, detect the virus.
-- Source: Pennsylvania West Nile Virus Control Program
Sidebar: Preventing West Nile virus
State authorities recommend the following steps to help prevent the spread of West Nile virus:
Reduce the amount of stagnant water that provides a habitat for mosquito breeding, including empty tires, vacant swimming pools, clogged roof gutters or birdbaths.
When outdoors at dawn or dusk, the most active mosquito times, wear clothing that maximizes the protection of your skin. Also, consider the use of insect repellent.
Make sure all doors and windows have screening.
Beware of myths such as electromagnetic and ultrasound devices and Vitamin B in preventing mosquito bites.
For more information on this story, contact the following sources:
Indiana County West Nile Virus Control Program
Robert C. Pollock
825 Philadelphia St.
Indiana, Pa. 15701
Phone: (724) 465-3880 or 465-3888
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Southwest Regional Office Bureau of Watershed Management
400 Waterfront Dr.
Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222-4745
Phone: (412) 442-4140
Fax: (412) 442-4242
Pennsylvania West Nile Virus Control Program
U.S. Centers for Disease Control