Mosquito populations and diseases rise in Alachua County

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Logan Atwell recalls being with his 4-year-old son in the park just down the street from their apartment in southwest Gainesville recently.

Instead of a pleasant afternoon, they were confronted with thick clouds of mosquitoes buzzing around the playground. He turned back home after just two minutes.

Atwell, 27, a manager at a local wireless phone store, said he was already worried about his children catching COVID-19. That fear has been compounded by heightened mosquito activity.

“The last thing we need is kids catching mosquito-borne illnesses,” he said. “I’m afraid to take my kids outside.”

The Florida Department of Health this month issued a mosquito-borne illnesses advisory in Alachua County. It warned of an increase in the risk of human transmission for diseases like West Nile virus, dengue fever and malaria – and came after two chickens in the county’s sentinel flock, which is monitored for diseases through routine blood tests, tested positive for West Nile.

Alachua is the 10th Florida county to be placed under such an advisory in 2021. While statewide cases of mosquito-borne illnesses are down this year compared to 2020, it’s Alachua’s first advisory since 2014. The county also reported an increase in mosquito population in its southwest parts, near Newberry, Archer and Haile Plantation.

“We’ve had a significant mosquito bloom in the last month,” said Anthony Dennis, environmental health director for the county’s health department. “There’s more mosquitoes, and disease was detected in the area. The risk is elevated.”

Dennis said the health department has received an usually high number of complaints from residents about mosquitoes, most of them from the southwest area. He estimated that there’s been a fourfold increase in complaints than normal for the fall season.

The director attributed the increased activity to high levels of rainfall causing flooding in parts of the county with low-lying prairies and retention basins that are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The rain creates pockets of standing water where they can breed.

“This was a special year in regard to mosquito blooms,” Dennis said.

Atwell has noticed more mosquitoes in the past few months than around this time in previous years. He can’t open his door for more than a few seconds without dozens of the bugs flying in. Not only that, he said, the mosquitoes are bigger and more resistant to bug repellant than before.

“There were some monsters out there,” he said. “I know what a regular mosquito looks like; these things are gigantic.”

Dr. Eric Caragata, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s entomology laboratory in Vero Beach, questioned whether they might be larger mosquitoes – or just non-biting insects like the crane fly. Caragata still advised caution given the illness advisory.

“Every person is at risk of infection from mosquito-borne pathogens and that includes healthy adults,” he said. “It’s really important for everyone to take steps to reduce the risk of their exposure to mosquito bites.”

Pest control companies like Mosquito Joe profit from the increased mosquito populations. Jason Osborne, operations manager for the company’s Gainesville-Ocala location, said he’s received more calls this fall than in any previous year around this time.

According to Osborne, in 2018 and 2019, the company lost 75% of its customer base during the cooler months. This year, however, residents in Alachua and Marion Counties were still signing up for mosquito sprays, he said.

“Mosquitoes don’t live off a calendar,” Osborne said. “Until it’s going to consistently hit the 50s or lower, they’re going to be thriving.”

Richard Lawton, a Gainesville resident of five years, is allergic to mosquito bites. They can swell up to the size of an egg and leave bruises on the correctional officer’s body. Even taking a step outside to catch some fresh air at his home can be made difficult.

“Every time I go outside, they just swarm me,” Lawton said.

Pharmacist Christine Brunetti said mosquitoes were so prevalent on her 5-acre farm in Newberry in September that she called a pest control company for the first time since moving to the area in 2002. Brunetti said her main concern was her horses, which are susceptible to West Nile and equine encephalitis. She got them vaccinated against the diseases, but she remains vigilant.

“I’ve watched them die of it,” she said of equine encephalitis. It’s terrible.”

Brunetti said she has not been bothered by mosquitoes as much recently, given that as temperatures cool down, their activity will slow along with it.

However, the county still encourages residents to take preventative and precautionary measures against mosquito bites. The health department advises draining sitting water from garbage cans, house gutters, flowerpots and anywhere else that holds water. It also encourages residents to wear long sleeves and use insect repellent when outside.

Dennis also said residents could see more mosquito activity next year if rainfall remains constant in the winter. Until then, he said to remain cautious.

“Avoid getting bit, use mosquito repellent, and make sure you're not breeding anything on your ground,” Dennis said.

About Eliot Golde

Eliot is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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