The West Nile virus is officially back. Public health officials got their first confirmation of that last week when mosquito pools in Richardson tested positive for the disease. Today, Highland Park announced a positive test of its own. Dallas County is already urging residents to use insect repellant, drain standing water and dress in long sleeves and pants.
This is all happening very early. Last year, the tests didn't start coming back positive until well into May, and that wound up being the worst West Nile season in Dallas County history, killing 19 people and sickening 398. It's enough to call up flashbacks of planes dosing the city with clouds of possibly toxic chemicals and make you wonder: Is this the new model? Is 2013 going to be just as bad as 2012? Is West Nile now like the professional baseball season, with the end of the World Series bleeding into spring training with barely a pause?
"Not having a crystal ball, there's no way to know," says Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zachary Thompson. "I think we know that there will be positive mosquitoes, as we've already found. If that's the case, we could have West Nile human cases."
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But Thompson actually sees the positive tests as good news, proof that measures put in place after last year are working. Both Highland Park and Richardson, as well as neighboring cities, have invested in their mosquito surveillance programs and are being more aggressive about seeking out mosquito pools early, then rubbing them out if they show signs of West Nile.
To put it in another way, West Nile may well have been out there in April 2012. It's just that no one was really looking for it.
Early detection offers several benefits. The most obvious is that, through targeted spraying as well as other, more proactive measures, it can help contain West Nile before it spreads. But Thompson says it also allows public health officials to better understand how the virus moves from year to year. It may be that it never really goes away but simply persists in mosquito populations that survive through the winter.
All in all, it's way too early to tell what the 2013 mosquito season will bring. No one's fueling up the planes just yet, but they're watching and waiting. Here's hoping they don't have to.