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New Mexico braces for early mosquito invasion

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Normally, David Gensler, water operations manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, doesn’t think about mosquitoes.

But this is not a normal year.

“Usually, mosquitoes are not that much of a problem, but I’m noticing them this year,” Gensler said Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot of standing water in the bosque. Any time I’m in the bosque, on the bosque trail, down by the river, I’ve been mobbed by them. For the last three or four weeks, even before it started to get warm, we were seeing mosquitoes.”

Dr. Mark DiMenna, deputy director at the city of Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department, said his staff has been seeing them, too.

“It is unusual to be seeing this many this early,” DiMenna said. “Normally, when we put out (mosquito) traps in April, we come up empty. But this year when we put out traps in April, nobody wanted to go out the next day because they didn’t want to get chewed up.”

DiMenna said the level of mosquito activity the Albuquerque area is experiencing now does not normally occur until June. He said heavy snowpack in the mountains and early warm weather has resulted in the Rio Grande running higher, sooner, which has caused flooding in the bosque and created ideal breeding areas for mosquitoes.

On Tuesday, the city Environmental Health Department, in cooperation with the Bernalillo County Health Protection Section, issued an advisory cautioning people to take steps to minimize exposure to mosquitoes and reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, such as West Nile virus.

“There’s a lot people can do around their own property by eliminating standing water,” DiMenna said. “Mosquitoes can breed in a couple of tablespoons of water. And they can go from eggs to an adult in a week.”

Dr. Paul Ettestad, state public health veterinarian, said West Nile virus is the insect-borne disease of greatest concern in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe areas.

So far the Zika virus has not been a problem this far north in the state.

“Everyone is concerned about the Zika virus, but up here in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, West Nile is the virus that kills people and can cause severe neurological damage that can be permanent,” Ettestad said.

West Nile virus was first detected in New Mexico in 2003. It infects humans, birds, horses and some mammals. Last year, there were six confirmed human cases of West Nile in the state, one of which resulted in a death.

Ettestad said mosquitoes can cause heartworms in dogs.

“Heartworm is a concern for dogs,” Ettestad said. “It’s a good idea at this time for people to make sure their dog is on heartworm medication. If their dog is not on medication and has not been for a while, they need to have the dog checked out by a veterinarian so he can prescribe the proper (level of ) medication.”

The city operates a joint city-county mosquito control program throughout the county. DiMenna said this includes both larva control and the chemical spraying of adult mosquitoes.

He said larva control is achieved by putting mosquito fish, a guppy-like fish that eats mosquito larva, into areas of standing water. The city breeds the fish for just that purpose.

DiMenna said the pesticide used by the city to combat adult mosquitoes is a synthetic pyrethroid, which is derived from naturally occurring compounds found in Chrysanthemum flowers.

“We use the lowest toxicity possible and do not use anything that is residual,” he said. “We are mindful that not everyone likes this stuff. We don’t want to kill anything but mosquitoes.”

Usually, DiMenna said, spraying for mosquitoes does not start until around Memorial Day. But the city is ready to go now.

“We intended to get started at the beginning of the week and would have if not for the wind,” he said. “We need to have some calm evenings. We need to spray mosquitoes when they are flying and they won’t fly in high wind.”

With more snowpack meltdown and runoff to come, DiMenna and his staff are gearing up for a tough fight with mosquitoes.

“There is more water to come,” he said. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”