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Mosquito, West Nile Virus, & Myth Busting Q & A with Ed Burnett

I recently read this Idaho Press Tribune article on how mosquito traps put out by the local mosquito abatement district had tested positive for West Nile Virus.  Though disturbed, I was simultaneously intrigued:  Who were these people that put out the traps?  How do they test for West Nile?  Is one of them Jason Bourne?

I did a little google research.  THAT led me to this crazy video of a guy on a buffalo…..which led me FINALLY to Ed Burnett, the director of the Canyon County Mosquito Abetment District.

I spoke with Ed on the phone, and he graciously agreed to this Q & A!  Without further ado, lets get to it:

Kirk:  Could you give me a little history about the Abatement District?

Ed:  The district was formed in 1997 when a group of landowners/farmers/subdivision residents that live around Lake Lowell and Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge wanted to do something about the tremendous mosquito problem that existed around the lake and wildlife refuge. Petitions were circulated in the summer of 1997 to form a special taxing district under the Mosquito Abatement Act Title 39 Chapter 28 Idaho Code. An election of the people who lived within the proposed 20 square mile boundaries was held in November 1997 and passed with moderate support. (District’s first name was Lake Lowell Mosquito Abatement District which was later changed to the Canyon County Mosquito Abatement District, CCMAD)

1998 the district operated with volunteers and donations plus obtaining a special use permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to perform mosquito larvae control on Lake Lowell using Bti. The volunteer operations proved to be successful an in 1999, property tax dollars became available to start mosquito control operations with a hired staff.

West Nile virus coincidentally started making it’s way across the U.S. in 1999 and the Lake Lowell Mosquito Abatement District (original name) received some gran money form the CDC to start a mosquito surveillance program for possible disease carrying mosquitoes. The first indication that native mosquitoes coming off Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge were a disease vector came in late summer 1999 when cattle that grazed on private property near Lake Lowell tested positive for Western Equine Encephalitis.

2000-2004: Mosquito control operations expanded somewhat with annexation and growth and the district grew modestly to about 24 square miles plus the purchase of 4 acres south of Nampa and build an operations facility. In the summer of 2005 (my first year as Director) as the results of an expanded mosquito surveillance program, West Nile virus was first discovered in the mosquito population in Idaho from a trap collected in Canyon County by our surveillance team.

2006: This the year that Idaho experienced a West Nile virus outbreak that resulted in over 1000 reported human cases with 21 deaths. As a result of this outbreak many new mosquito control programs were formed and others expanded. Because Canyon County was the “epicenter” of mosquito the West Nile virus infections our district grew from 24 square miles to county wide operations of over 600 square miles.

Where we are today: We have an operation budget of $1.5 million with five full time employees and a seasonal staff of about 20 people. (part time and full time seasonal). CCMAD remains a separate special taxing district that is governed by a five member Board of Trustees that are appointed by the Board of County Commissioners. We are funded by a property tax levy of about $16/$100,000 of assessed valuation.

Kirk:  What do you think is the most important function of CCMAD?

Ed:  Our goal and it is in our mission statement is to protect the county’s population from the mosquitoes that can carry diseases such as West Nile Virus. We also are charged with protecting the citizens of Canyon County from emerging disease carrying mosquitoes and our surveillance program is designed not only to monitor the species of mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus but also to monitor for invasive species of mosquitoes that may vector other diseases such as Dengue Fever, Zika virus and other potential mosquito borne disease. Another important function is to protect animal health from vector borne insects/arthropods such as black fly, ticks and of course disease carrying mosquitoes that affect livestock.

Kirk:  How Many times have you encountered West Nile virus since your tenure as director?

Ed:  Because of our extensive mosquito surveillance program we have detected West Nile virus every year since 2005. Our goal is to keep the disease in the mosquito population and to accomplish this we have to react to the increase in vector populations before there is a spreading of the disease to human and animal population.

Kirk:  How do you test for West Nile Virus in the mosquitoes?

Ed:  First of all, not all mosquitoes are a carrier (vector) of West Nile virus. The primary vector are the mosquitoes in the Culex genus with three primary species; Western Encephalitis Mosquito (Culex tarsalis), Norther House Mosquito (Culex pipiens) and Tule Mosquito (Culex erythrothorax). Mosquito surveillance using special portable, battery operated traps that contain dry ice (carbon dioxide) are deployed county wide four nights a week. The traps are then collected the next morning, brought into our lab , mosquitoes are frozen and the Culex species are separated out and the testing procedure begins by first placing the mosquitoes in to test pools of of no more than fifty. The pools are identified by unique number and are crushed and centrifuged in a West Nile virus buffer solution that extract the virus RNA. A portion of the solution is placed on a test strip, allowed to dry for 90 minutes then run through a reader that reads the virus value. If the value number is a certain bench mark then the test pool is identified as a positive test pool. The positive test pool is then reported to the Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare. Also remedial corrective actions are taken in the field to reduce the number of Culex species mosquitoes, by nigh time Ultra Low Volume neighborhood fogging and or mosquito larvae control procedures on production sites.

Besides testing the Culex population for West Nile virus it is important to monitor the species and take the corrective action in the field BEFORE the species may test positive. Our operations are surveillance driven and everything we do in the field is determined by what the mosquito population is like the field. Integrated pest management at it’s finest and determining threshold levels of potential disease carrying mosquitoes.

Kirk:  What do you think are the Biggest Myth or misconceptions About West Nile Virus?

Ed:  First, not all species mosquitoes are capable of carrying the disease. Second, there is a huge lag time from when a person is diagnosed with the disease to when they actually may have acquired it. Sometimes up to 30 days! This is why monitoring and treating the potential disease vector is so important. Third, there is a vaccine for horses that has to be administered in the early spring with a booster very year. Fourth, immunity, there is only a limited immunity to the disease and reinfect is entirely possible.

Kirk:  How do mosquitoes get West Nile Virus?

Ed:  Mosquitoes do not get West Nile virus but are a vector (carrier of the disease). The hosts of West Nile virus are migratory and local bird populations. Culex species mosquitoes primarily feed on birds, can pick up the virus, spread it to other birds and/or people or animals such as horses. People and horses are what is called a “dead end” host and a mosquito cannot spread the disease by biting an infected person and spread the virus to an uninfected person.

Kirk:  What are some ways people can protect themselves from West Nile Virus?

Ed:  The American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) developed a practice known as the “7 Ds” to remember how to protect ones self from the bite of mosquitoes that can carry a disease:
DRAIN any standing water on your property that may cause mosquitoes and not to over irrigate.
DAWN and DUSK are times to avoid outdoors.
DRESS appropriately by wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants when outside during the time of active mosquito flight.
DEFEND yourself against mosquitoes by using an approved insect repellent such as one containing DEET 30%.
DOORS and window screens should be in good condition to prevent mosquitoes from entering your home.
DISTRICT personnel are er to help address or make recommendations about mosquito problems that one may be experiencing.

About Ed Burnett:  Ed got his BS Degree in Agricultural Resources from Californian Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo. He has been in the Pest Management field since 1980, was part owner of a Commercial Pest Control company for 10 years, is a sustaining member of the American Mosquito Control Association, a member of the National Pest Management Association, a Past President of Environment Care Association of Idaho and currently sits on the Board of Directors.  He also was the Past President of the Northwest Mosquito and Vector Control Association and the Idaho Mosquito and Vector Control Association. He also is on the Idaho State Dept. of Agriculture Pesticide Licensing Advisory Committee.


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