It might be time to stock up on bug spray.
North Carolina is poised to do away with what remains of its state-run mosquito control program, if proposals to eliminate $185,992 in funding are adopted in the final budget.
The likely elimination of the vector control program in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t gotten much – or really, any – attention as lawmakers contend with major policy shifts in the $21.1 billion budget like kicking off thousands of elderly and disabled off of Medicaid rolls and eliminating thousands of teachers aides.
But this year’s proposed cuts to the mosquito program could be the final step in dismantling what was once a top-notch state program to combat diseases spread by insects like mosquitoes and ticks, said Dennis Salmen, a retired Mecklenburg County environmental health director who now monitors legislation for the N.C. Mosquito and Vector Control Association.
“We were considered a model state for this,” Salmen said. “Not anymore.”
The $186,000 cut was included in all three budget proposals for the 2014-2015 fiscal year from Gov. Pat McCrory, the House and the Senate. The money has been distributed in past years to various towns and counties to help support existing efforts to spray and prevent mosquito outbreaks.
Counties and cities have long supported their own spraying and prevention programs, but the state funding, even if minimal, made a big difference to towns in the coastal plains with small budgets and lots of mosquitoes, he said.
The more significant blow to North Carolina’s mosquito and pest control programs came in 2011, when the newly-empowered Republican legislature passed a budget that eliminated $500,000 in funding for the Pest Management Control Program . The program in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources was made up of two entomologists and three environmental scientists that tracked and monitored diseases spread by ticks and mosquitoes in the state.
Those state-funded positions that are now gone, though a position to monitor bed bug infestations was absorbed by the state agricultural department.
This year’s proposed cuts, on top of the 2011 cuts, is leaving North Carolina unprepared to handle any outbreaks of diseases that mosquitoes can carry, a risk to public health, Salmen said.
“We’re going to use humans as diseases sentinels,” he said. “If my son or daughter dies, I’m not going to be too happy with that.”
The changes come as North Carolina experiences some of the highest incidents in the nation of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a potential fatal disease spread by bites from dog ticks.
The state has experienced much lower reports of the West Nile disease carried by mosquitoes, with only three incidents reported last year, though one of those cases was a fatality, according to 2013 data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State health officials have also confirmed two cases this year of the chikungunya virus prevalent in tropical areas and contracted through mosquito bites. DHHS believes that the infected Alamance and Forsyth county residents got the disease while traveling outside of the country. N.C. State University researchers are looking at whether the North Carolina’s mosquito population is at risk of carrying the disease in the future. Public health experts at the CDC thinks it’s only a matter of time before the virus is carried by mosquitoes in the U.S.
Salmen said he fears that the state could really be caught off-guard if a significant hurricane were to hit North Carolina and cause flooding like what Fran and Floyd caused in the 1990s.
”We don’t have experts in 95 percent of the town and cities to carry out large-scale spraying and mosquito prevention,” he said.
And that could create a very itchy, and risky, situation for public health.