HOUSTON – The West Nile virus is not the only threat carried by mosquitoes. Exotic diseases normally associated with the jungle could become more common here, according to experts.
”Yes.There is something around the corner. When it is going to come? We don’t know,” said Dr. Rudy Bueno the Director of the Harris County Mosquito Control District. “I think that it is a matter of when, rather than if.”
One of the diseases is dengue fever, which is active right now in Central America and Mexico.
The other was first found in an area of Africa in Kenya in 2004. Chikungunya means ‘that which bends over,’ because it causes severe crippling joint pain that can keep people bedridden for months, and even kill. Like West Nile, there is no treatment or vaccine.
The diseases come from a specific kind of mosquito known as the Asian Tiger, or Aedes albopictus, a mosquito that used to be unknown in Houston or even on this entire continent until 1985.
”It was discovered here in Harris County -- the first time it was seen anywhere in the country—and since then spread all over the country. This was ground zero,” Bueno said.
It was discovered by a Harris County Mosquito Control worker in a shipment of used tires from Asia.
The mosquitoes are different than the ones targeted for carrying West Nile.
”They are more aggressive. They definitely follow people around when they are out and about in a yard,” Bueno said.
They are active in the daytime, which means that the kind of spraying going on now does not help. Their favorite meal is you, and if they’re here, the virus will be.
”That is what we worry about here in Houston. Houston is a very dynamic port of entry for many people. coming from many different places,” said Dr. Kristy Murray who is a Professor at the Center for Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“You have a lot of people coming in from dengue-infected areas, you have people coming in from Chikungunya-affected areas. All you need is somebody that has been infected and gets on a plane. (Then it) comes here,” she said.
While the diseases aren't contagious between humans, an infected person can transmit it to a mosquito that bites them.
Too see the future, you only need look back to 50 years ago and what came before West Nile.
”A pretty severe St. Louis encephalitis outbreak (happened) in 1964. (A) lot of people died and a lot of people were sick,” Bueno remembered.
There have been other SLE outbreaks in Houston since then. Now, West Nile has virtually erased St. Louis encephalitis as a problem because its stronger.
Bill Wample, a West Nile virus survivor, said he underestimated the disease.
“It came from outer space, I had no clue what was happening to me,” he said.
It took three months for doctors to figure out what was wrong and to diagnose West Nile.
Wample survived the disease, but it changed him forever.
“You go from being a vibrant busy person, to sitting in your house the rest of your life,” he said.
Wample was a copy editor at the Houston in Chronicle in 2006. His first symptoms were confusion at work and a headache, followed by hallucinations. He is now legally blind and disabled.
There is one more thing that links all these vicious viruses—the carrier can be stopped.
“Use mosquito spray with Deet. Get it on when you go out the back door, out the front door use the mosquito spray,” said Wample.
He said he now does it every time.