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Mosquitoes Become Latest Public Health Battle

Todd Bookman

Mosquitoes get West Nile Virus from birds, and then they give it to us. It’s Ryan Naujoks's job to stop that. He works for Dragon Mosquito Control, a private company that municipalities like Derry hire to spray insecticides.

"I’m at Rider Field right now, and everything is locked up," Naujoks says over the phone. "Rider Field…"

Eventually, someone from the Town of Derry comes and unlocks the gates. Naujoks fires up the sprayer.

The truck makes a lap around the field emitting a small puff of white smoke.

"So it doesn’t look like a whole lot, but it does a pretty good job. A lot of people expect a big plume of smoke. Those days have gone by," he says.

The chemical is called Anvil. It targets adult mosquitoes that can carry West Nile.

This year, only one person in New Hampshire has been infected with the virus. But captured mosquitos are showing high rates of infection.

Tim Soucy is public health director for Manchester, where the first diagnosis happened.

"It seems to be a very bad year for West Nile Virus," says Soucy. "This is the most positive mosquitos we’ve ever seen in a season."

Nationally, it’s shaping up to be a record year.  West Nile has already killed 41 people and infected more than 1,100. Nobody can say why infection rates are so high this year. Experts think it could be related to the mild winter, or the hot summer.

Whatever the cause, it’s meant more business for spraying companies. And that comes with a cost for New Hampshire towns. In the past, they could seek reimbursement from the state through something called the Mosquito Control Fund. But that fund was eliminated in the last budget.

Derry spends $45,000 a year on mosquito control. Manchester spent $15,000 on last week’s spraying. Tim Soucy says they’ve got no choice but to spend the money.

"From the city’s perspective, it would be great if we were able to recapture a portion of what we are spending," says Soucy. "But it doesn’t impede our decision making. It would certainly be nice if we were able to recoup some of our costs."

Putting aside the finances, the act of spraying insecticides has always been controversial. But Jose Montero, the state’s director of public health, says it’s a necessary precaution.

"Pesticide application is something that a lot of people profoundly dislike. If done properly, it minimizes the risk to people and property," says Montero.

The risk of West Nile Virus to people is relatively low. Roughly 8 in ten who get infected won’t have symptoms. Elderly people are more susceptible to the severe outcomes, including neurological effects.

Montero says people can protect themselves by doing the obvious: long sleeves, bug spray. Also, standing water is a breeding ground, so clean out gutters and empty the kiddie-pool.

Back in Derry, Ryan Naujoks is done fogging the soccer fields.

"Took about 3 minutes. We sprayed .07 of a gallon, so not that much. And we’ve reduced the mosquito population to lower your disease risk. Your tax dollars at work."

Mosquito spraying will continue around the state until a frost kills off what Naujoks can’t.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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