Once Bitten

Runways during Manhattan's Fashion Week were clogged with gauzy blouses and underskirts made of mosquito netting -- perhaps in preparation for a global version of the West Nile epidemic that's currently doing big business in the Valley. Will Humble, bureau chief of the Arizona Department of Health Services, swears that West Nile is on its way out. But don't pitch your mosquito repellent just yet.

New Times: What's up with mosquitoes that they're suddenly lethal?

Will Humble: Well, this is a weird disease. It's been native to the Nile, parts of Africa and Israel, really forever. There are people who think Alexander the Great died of West Nile. Of course there was no lab test, but his symptoms were remarkably like West Nile. It's been around forever, and it's really amazing that it didn't happen before now, given the mobility in the world. But something happened in 1999, and the virus somehow got over to the U.S.

NT: By carrier pigeon?

Humble: Well, it could have been by a bird, but there's the theory that a mosquito infected with West Nile came on a 747 from Tel Aviv or something, got off in LaGuardia and infected a bird by biting it. But I think it was a pet bird that was bitten by infected mosquitoes, escaped, and started the cycle we know now as the West Nile epidemic.

NT: Which eventually gave us all another reason to love Phoenix: It's the West Nile Virus epicenter, according to you guys. In fact, Arizona is the only state where West Nile is an epidemic.

Humble: Yeah. Well, in 1999 New York was the epicenter. And it progressed slowly across the country. As it did that, we noticed a pattern: that during the second year, the virus really goes crazy. So this was Arizona's second year. It was basically our turn.

NT: That's nice.

Humble: This disease is normally passed back and forth between mosquitoes and birds. Humans are an accident. The virus really prefers birds; it doesn't really like people.

NT: I feel that way myself sometimes. I read that Arizona has more cases of West Nile than all other states combined.

Humble: That was the case three weeks ago, but now California is just exploding with West Nile. We have about 360 people in the Valley who have it.

NT: But 30,000 Arizonans may have the virus without knowing it.

Humble: Yeah, but 80 percent of people who get bit by an infected mosquito won't know it. Twenty percent will get mild symptoms, like a headache, but they won't associate it with West Nile. Only about 1 percent will have symptoms severe enough to take to the doctor.

NT: Why us? Is it because we have a million swimming pools here?

Humble: The primary reason is we're in Year Two. And because we've created a Des Moines-like environment in a lot of neighborhoods here, where there are a lot of shade trees and a lot of water from irrigation and pools. Birds and mosquitoes love shade, too, and they're all hanging out together. And we have about 400,000 swimming pools in the Valley. Let's say 99 percent of people manage their pools properly -- which they don't -- but that's 4,000 pools that can be breeding grounds for mosquitoes. An abandoned or neglected pool can put out between 10,000 and 100,000 mosquitoes per day.

NT: Let's start arresting people with standing water. Arpaio would love that.

Humble: Unless he's got a green pool himself! No, there's really no way to fine people or even throw them in jail for having standing water. But last June we were given temporary authority to throw larvicide over the fence into a pool without the owner's consent. It keeps the mosquitoes from turning into adults. It doesn't really kill the larvae, it just prevents them from getting wings.

NT: It's all so humane!

Humble: (Laughs.) People for the Ethical Treatment of Insects would be pleased.

NT: But I'm thinking that the mosquitoes will still get to us. It will just take them longer without wings; they'll have to crawl over and bite us.

Humble: No. Really. That's doubtful.

NT: Well, what's being done to slow the spread?

Humble: The first thing to do is get rid of standing water. Drain abandoned swimming pools, kiddy pools, old tires. Then larviciding is second, like with the green swimming pools. And the third and most controversial is what we call adultriciding, which is killing adult mosquitoes, either with ground-based fogging -- you've probably seen the trucks driving down the street spraying out insecticide -- and then aerial spraying, which everyone freaked out about.

NT: I know! Give me a break. What did people expect -- that DHS would be running around town with fly swatters?

Humble: Well, I think it was the right decision to not go to aerial spraying. It's expensive -- in 10 days, they would have sprayed three million dollars' worth of bug spray. And a month from then, there'd be no budget and the mosquitoes would be back. Aerial spraying would have been a Band-Aid, not a magic bullet.

NT: Why do mosquitoes congregate in one part of town over another? Do people with more money taste better?

Humble: No. It's moved all through the Valley, different parts of town. It started out in the northwest Valley, and moved on to Encanto, then Troon, and it kept bouncing around. Now it's just scattered. And we don't really know why.

NT: Maybe mosquitoes are looking for the best-tasting humans. Is West Nile more prevalent among certain ethnicities?

Humble: I'm not sure we tracked that sort of thing. But age-wise, we saw people from one month to 93 years old [getting sick]. Anyone can get infected, but with one exception, the people who've died from it here have been in their 70s.

NT: Look, I got bit last night. Is my head going to swell up even more? Am I going to die?

Humble: The 1 percent of mosquitoes that bite people usually don't have West Nile. Even if you did get infected, it's not certain that you'd get it.

NT: But I might develop a phobia about getting it. Is there such a thing?

Humble: Not that I know of. I think the vast majority of people are taking this in stride. There was a behavioral study in July that showed that 98 percent of people were aware of West Nile, and 73 percent said they were very well informed about how to prevent it. But only 29 percent of them ever reported using insect repellant; 24 percent ever looked for standing water in their yard; 21 percent stayed indoors at night to protect themselves. So a lot of people were aware, but almost nobody did anything about it. Which proves that they weren't freaked out about it.

NT: I think what West Nile really needs is a celebrity endorsement. I'm telling you, if Nicole Kidman got it, there'd be a cure within a month.

Humble: And there'd be more people freaked out about it, too. People who claim that this is a black-and-white issue aren't being ingenuous. Is it worth it to use insecticide knowing that there will be some people adversely impacted? Does getting a handle on this epidemic outweigh the importance of that? Next year, if we have 10 cases of West Nile, is it worth it to put a ton of resources into eradicating adult mosquitoes?

NT: So West Nile is here to stay. Is it the new AIDS?

Humble: No, but it is going to be an endemic disease across the state. It's here to stay as a low-level health problem for some time. But it's not going to ever become a long-term public health hazard, no.

NT: I see a West Nile disaster movie in our future.

Humble: It won't ever get to that proportion. Because the Board of Supervisors gave a million dollars to the county health department, which is really what broke the epidemic's back.

NT: People might start using West Nile as a weapon, though. If you bite me, can I get it?

Humble: Well, no. It's going to stay a vector-borne disease, otherwise we would have seen that in the Middle East. Next year will be better, because the birds will build up antibodies to the virus, and when they get bit by a West Nile mosquito, they won't get sick, which will slow the spread.

NT: What about their offspring?

Humble: Well, you're right. There will always be birds in the ecosystem that are susceptible to West Nile and will be spreading it back and forth with mosquitoes. But things will calm down. The explosion is over. Our turn is over.

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