Golden eagle tests positive for West Nile virus

Mosquito using six mouth parts to bite the skin of its host | Image courtesy of Deep Look, St. George News

WASHINGTON COUNTY — An eagle found emaciated and lying on the ground in Colorado City has tested positive for the West Nile virus.

Officials with the Utah State Health Department notified Best Friends Animal Society that a golden eagle being cared for at the animal sanctuary tested positive for the virus, Barbara Williamson, Best Friends Animal Society spokesperson said in an email to St. George News Thursday.

The bird is currently under quarantine and treatment,” she said.

The female eagle arrived on July 3 after officers with the Colorado City Marshall’s Office found the sick bird lying on the ground and brought it to the sanctuary to be cared for.

Once at the sanctuary wildlife staff noticed that in addition to emaciation the bird also showed signs of dehydration and displayed coordination issues. West Nile virus testing was performed on the bird and then sent to the Utah State Laboratory for analysis.

Several days later Best Friends staff were notified the test was positive, Williamson said, adding the bird is responding well to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery.

This incident comes one week after Draper City officials were notified by the Salt Lake County Health Department that a mosquito pool found within the city tested positive for West Nile virus.

A “mosquito pool” is a group of mosquitoes that are caught and tested during a single trip, David Heaton, Southwest Utah Public Health Department public information officer, said in an interview with St. George News last week.

Heaton said there are no confirmed human cases of the West Nile virus in Utah to date and the chance of contracting the virus is very low. Only 20 percent of those infected come down with symptoms, he said.

Those infected will develop a fever with other symptoms such as headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting or diarrhea. Less than one percent of people who are infected will develop a serious neurological illness such as encephalitis or meningitis, Heaton said.

This particular incident with the eagle does not directly impact humans, Heaton said.

Humans are not in danger of contracting the virus from birds or animals, because the virus doesn’t pass from animal to human,” Heaton said.

Mosquito control is a vital public-health service that has a significant impact on reducing the number of vector diseases, or those transmitted by mosquitoes, including the West Nile virus.

In Washington County this is accomplished through the efforts of a small government agency that specializes in monitoring, testing and reducing the mosquito population.

This “Mosquito Swat Team” can be found inside an inconspicuous building on the outskirts of Washington City where five individuals work full-time for the Southwest Mosquito Abatement and Control District.

Going out under the cover of darkness the crew sets and tracks more than 35 hand-crafted mosquito traps at a time, catching and counting thousands of mosquitoes every year, and testing pools of them for harmful diseases.

This approach seems to be working.

“Washington County is typically the first area to have a mosquito pool test positive for West Nile, but this year we are still at zero,” Heaton said.

The team sets the traps from dusk to dawn to avoid catching beneficial insects, and uses three methods to reduce mosquito numbers in Southern Utah. The team uses mosquito traps to monitor and catch the adult mosquito population, and removes larva using organic bacteria or a surface water additive to prevent them from accessing oxygen, facility manager Sean Amodt said.

The use of chemical insecticides is strictly regulated and this method is only deployed in well-defined situations.

“We only use that method if mosquito numbers are very high or a pool tests positive for West Nile virus in a particular area,” Amodt said.

In 2016 more than 500 mosquito pools were analyzed and 10 tested positive for the virus. This year they have not detected any pools that are positive yet, but it’s still early.

As temperatures rise, the eating habits of the mosquitoes change and pools testing positive for the virus can appear,” he said.

On a shoe-string budget the crew designed their own traps using fabricated materials and CO2 tanks that are more effective in  trapping the insects. They are also saving taxpayer dollars at the same time, Amodt said.

Mosquito abatement districts are a rarity in Southern Utah and Washington County is the only area in Southern Utah with a dedicated mosquito abatement program, Heaton said.

These tiny insects are far and away the deadliest animals on earth because of their ability to spread lethal vector-borne diseases that infect 1 billion people worldwide, and kill millions more each year, according to the World Health Organization.

The virus cannot be transmitted through person to person contact or through animal to person casual contact. It also cannot be transmitted by handling live or infected birds, or consuming infected birds or animals.

Mosquito control tips provided by the Utah Department of Health:

  • Prevent mosquito bites by wearing clothing that covers arms and legs and using an insect repellent with 20 to 30 percent DEET.
  • Find and remove any puddles of water or standing water around the home to reduce mosquito breeding sites.
  • Regular swimming pool maintenance prevents mosquito breeding.
  • Report any bodies of stagnant water to the Southwest Mosquito Abatement District by clicking here. 
  • Keep doors, windows and screens in good condition and make sure they fit tightly.
  • Consult with an immunization travel clinic before traveling to areas that may have mosquito-borne illness.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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