Budget cuts are forcing Hamilton County to stop spraying to control mosquitoes just as state officials say cases of West Nile virus are spreading across the state.
And some say cutting the 23-year-old service provided by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department could put residents at risk for years to come.
"Ending disease prevention services like this could potentially cause preventable harm to the community," said Kevin Lusk, a spokesman for the Chattanooga and Hamilton County Medical Society, which represents more than 1,000 local physicians.
"We understand that the health department has financial issues," he said, "but we want to make sure that the general health for Hamilton County citizens is taken into account when they are thinking through this issue."
Earlier this month, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger announced a plan that would lay off 37 employees and cut $13.7 million from the county's $638 million budget. Included in that plan was a $940,000 cut to the health department budget and a nearly $235,600 trim to the health department's environmental services, which include mosquito-control efforts.
Officials said the mosquito-control program, which included fogging for mosquitoes throughout the county and regular inspection and treatment of about 300 areas of standing water, is being eliminated because it wasn't paying off for the county.
"It is the most-expensive and least-effective way to control mosquitoes," said Becky Barnes, administrator at the health department.
She also said tougher regulations coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the use of pesticides would require more paperwork and funding to control the bloodsucking insects.
"In the past, it was seen as a way to control mosquitoes, but the more we know, the more we find out," she said. "Some of it was just comfort. People don't like to get bit at a ball game."
Hamilton County had been one of 10 counties in Tennessee that maintained a mosquito-control program to stop the spread of illnesses such as West Nile, according to state officials.
West Nile virus causes flu-like symptoms that typically clear in a few days. Serious illness results in about 1 percent of cases and can include meningitis or encephalitis and result in high fever, neck stiffness, stupor or disorientation.
Last August, the local control program found a pool of mosquitoes in northeastern Hamilton County that tested positive for West Nile. In 2002, the peak year for West Nile here, 74 birds tested positive for the virus. Mosquitoes that tested positive for the virus have been found every year since then, except for 2006.
This year, mosquitoes in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville have tested positive for West Nile, and Tennessee is the 10th state this year to find mosquitoes, horses or birds with the virus.
Four human cases were reported in Tennessee last year, down from the record high of 56 cases in 2002, said Andrea Turner, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health.
Only one human case has been found in the United States this year, in Mississippi, but that number could grow if people aren't careful when outdoors, she said.
Mosquito-control programs are helpful, Turner said, but the vast majority of cities and counties don't have the financial means for the upkeep.
"That is why we are urging individuals to use insect repellent and check standing water," she said.
Reports of mosquitoes in the area have been down this year because it's been a relatively dry summer, said Jody Millard, owner of Jody Millard Pest Control and president of the Tennessee Pest Control Association.
"The ground is dry as it can be," Millard said. "Last year was really bad."
Mosquitoes are at their peak in Tennessee from May to October, and they catch the West Nile virus from feeding on infected birds.
Still, people should be cautious about the mosquitoes that are buzzing about, especially now that the county won't be spraying, Millard said.
"West Nile is there every year, but some years we catch it and some years we don't," he said.
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at 423-757-6601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.