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Mosquito-control program said in peril

The best Harry Nuss can figure, in retrospect, his illness began last August with a mosquito bite that wouldn't heal.

Harry Nuss and his wife, Sue. He was one of last year's victims of West Nile virus. This year's season is just now beginning.
Harry Nuss and his wife, Sue. He was one of last year's victims of West Nile virus. This year's season is just now beginning.Read more

The best Harry Nuss can figure, in retrospect, his illness began last August with a mosquito bite that wouldn't heal.

Then the Newtown Square man woke up with double vision and, not long after that, went to the emergency room. He spent the next 10 days semiconscious in the hospital as one of the state's 14 confirmed cases of West Nile virus last year.

One person died.

As mosquito season begins again, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger warned yesterday that a state program to reduce the risk of the virus was in jeopardy.

State officials have credited an aggressive detection and insecticide-spraying program for checking the spread of the disease. In 2003, the year before the program began, 237 human cases were confirmed; nine people died.

Hanger said a budget bill approved by the Senate would reduce the program's funding to counties for next year by 40 percent - from $4.6 million to $2.8 million.

He focused on the bill even though it had already been defeated in the House on Monday. He said it would force the department to consider eliminating 39 of the state's 67 counties from the program.

"We don't think now is the time to cut back on our efforts to battle mosquitoes," Hanger said. "This program is really a lifesaver. It keeps people out of the hospital."

But State Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango), chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said the DEP had the discretion to give the counties more money from the overall West Nile program, as well as from a separate "off-budget" program.

"Unfortunately, it appears that DEP is willing to let personnel and operating costs trump actual spraying to prevent the spread of West Nile virus," she said in a statement. "That approach is misguided."

State Sen. Edwin B. Erickson (R., Delaware County), chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, said Hanger was engaging in "scare tactics." He characterized the Senate bill as "the beginning of a process" because the administration has not yet proposed a workable budget.

Hanger also addressed concerns about the spraying program. The DEP and counties routinely use trucks to spray areas that have adult populations of mosquitoes that carry the disease.

But last year, when the problem became too severe and too widespread in this region, officials decided to spray insecticide from low-flying planes across more than 100,000 acres.

Residents complained that the 26-hour notice was inadequate for them to leave, if they chose, and certainly not enough to quell fears that the insecticide would harm plants, pets, or humans. Radnor Township filed legal action to stop the spraying, but a state judge denied the request.

Nancy Roncetti, the DEP's regional program manager for water supply, said officials need to spray quickly, so adult mosquitoes don't breed.

But new guidelines call for public notification at least 48 hours in advance for truck spraying and 72 hours for aerial spraying. (Residents can get e-mail notifications of DEP sprayings by signing up to receive news releases at

Many people who are bitten by a mosquito that carries the disease experience no ill effects. But perhaps one in 150 will - like Nuss - develop a much more serious infection. Symptoms can include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis.

Last year, 37 people died.

Hanger spoke yesterday at a press event that was also intended to kick off a public-awareness campaign, now that mosquito season has begun.

On May 5, a crow collected in York County tested positive for West Nile virus, the earliest discovery of the disease since 2003.

Several populations of mosquitoes also have tested positive. Ground spraying has been planned for Bensalem and Bristol Townships in Bucks County. South Philadelphia's FDR Park was to have been sprayed last night. Spraying is scheduled for tomorrow, weather permitting, in Pottstown and Lower Pottsgrove Township, Montgomery County.

In New Jersey, which had 10 human cases with two deaths last year, surveillance efforts have begun, said Marilyn Riley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

No birds, mosquito populations, or humans have tested positive so far, she said.

Officials emphasize the importance of not having standing water, which serves as a breeding ground for mosquitoes. "Dump it, drain it, and if you can't do that, treat it," Hanger said. "You don't want mosquito populations booming on your property."

Nuss, who was 65 when he got sick, certainly does that now.

As a result of the disease, he was unable to drive for six months. He lost his job as a school-bus driver and, along with it, his health insurance, although he is now on Medicare and his wife has bought separate insurance.

He continues to have muscle weakness and memory lapses.

"All because of a mosquito," he said.