By Emily Kunkel
Utah health departments are testing mosquitoes, chickens and birds to avoid the West Nile Virus from infecting Utah residents.
The West Nile Virus became a threat to western states when it spread from New York City in 1999 to the West Coast in just three years.
That kind of a spread is phenomenal, said Lewis Marrott, director of the division of mosquito abatement for the Utah County Health Department.
The Division of Mosquito Abatement is responsible for trapping, studying and spraying mosquitoes.
Marrott said there are 49 different species of mosquitoes in Utah, but they are only testing for two of the species: Culex tarsalis and Culex pipiens. These two species seem to be the most susceptible to transmitting the virus.
To test the mosquitoes, Marrott said, the health department puts out light traps once a week in areas where people have complained about mosquitoes and in areas where field experts have identified a high population.
After the mosquitoes are caught, the traps are brought into the health department where they are identified under a microscope and divided into groups, Marrott said.
Marrott said the two species susceptible to the virus are sent to the Salt Lake City lab for DNA testing.
The health department hasn”t found the virus in the mosquitoes yet, Marrott said. The same process of testing mosquitoes was used last summer, but no detection of the virus was found.
“There”s always a risk factor involved,” he said.
Another method Utah health departments are using to test for the virus is through chickens.
Flocks of chickens are caged in areas where there is a high population of mosquitoes, Marrott said.
Marrott said after the mosquitoes bite the chickens, their blood samples are taken.
“The virus doesn”t seem to affect the chickens,” he said. “Because the chickens build up antibodies, the become an indicator of the virus.”
The Public Information Officer with the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, Pam Davenport, said they have started a dead bird surveillance program.
The surveillance program requests Utah residents to report any dead birds to their local health departments.
Davenport said they are looking for certain types of birds such as ravens, crows, magpies, owls, hawks and vultures because they are the most susceptible to the virus.
“We are yet to detect the virus in Salt Lake County,” Davenport said. “But I predict we will.”
The surveillance program began in the fall of 2002 when the virus spread into Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming, she said.
Davenport said the Salt Lake County Health Department has found more than 200 birds, but none have carried the virus.
“We prefer to find it in a dead bird rather than a person,” she said.