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July 24, 2012 > Vector Control helps residents stay safe

Vector Control helps residents stay safe

By Annie Yu

Warm days and lazy nights... its summertime. Kids are running around outside and teenagers are either glued to a computer screen or completely absent from the house. The warm weather is perfect for picnics, hikes, pool parties, barbeques and play dates at the park; worrying about ticks and mosquitoes may be the last thing on your mind.

"This is the time of year when people go outside and go camping, and they may get ticks or get bitten by mosquitos," Daniel Wilson of the Alameda County Vector Control Services District (ACVCSD) said. "It's also the peak time of year for insects and other arthropods, and also rats, mice, raccoons, skunks and other wildlife."

Wilson, ACVCSD's community relations coordinator, has travelled throughout Alameda County and seen some cringe-worthy vector situations. One family he visited had a cockroach infestation so bad there were literally hundreds of cockroaches swarming around on their ceiling. He believes that many people do not know much about disease-bearing animals. "I think, in the scope of things, probably the last thing people think about are vectors," Wilson said.

A vector is any animal that can transmit disease or cause injury or discomfort to humans. Using that definition, it is clear why ACVCSD responds to a huge number of complaints about bats, bees, flies, rats, snakes, cockroaches, wasps and more. They have also responded to complaints about foxes, horses, coyotes, abandoned vehicles and overgrowth.

In Fremont, Newark and Union City, the most common complaints are about wildlife such as skunks, raccoons and opossums. They may seem cute at first, but wildlife frequenting your backyard poses many health risks. At this time of year there are many female raccoons with babies who can find ways into a house through vents to the attic. Raccoons generally relieve in the same area and may leave urine stains and contamination on your ceiling. Outside, in a yard, pets and children are at risk of contracting round worm, found in raccoon droppings, or even rabies if the raccoon is infected. Pets can also contract other diseases such as salmonella if food or water bowls are contaminated.

Skunks may also create a dangerous situation, especially if they are infected with rabies. "Skunks have been the number two animal we detect with rabies," Wilson said. "Bats are number one."

To prevent skunks from visiting, make sure fences extend below ground - skunks don't climb; they usually burrow under fences.

Feeding Wildlife:
Food left for wild animals can be dangerous - both to them and their human neighbors. Some well-meaning people feed them as if they were domesticated stray kittens. "Neighborhoods are like this big oasis for wild animals... they're foraging from backyard to backyard for food. Once they find something there, they will keep coming back just to check," Wilson explained. Make sure to bring in your pet's food bowl every night, even if it is empty - just the scent of food will draw wildlife. Seal any openings into your house and check your fence for any holes. And if you happen to get bitten - get to the doctor immediately. "Prevention is the key; it's much easier," Wilson said.

Anyone planning to go outside this summer - probably everyone - should be alert for ticks. According to Wilson, "The top three vector-borne diseases in the United States are spread by ticks. "They're all tick-borne. Ticks are nasty. We don't think about it that much since people don't usually die from tick-borne diseases... but they can by very debilitating and long-term, especially Lyme disease."

ACVCSD finds nymphal ticks at the beginning of summer (May or June) and as late as October. Nymphal ticks are in an immature stage and have the highest infection rate for Lyme disease - five to 15 percent of nymphal ticks are infected. By contrast, the average infection rate of adult ticks is one to two percent. People who contract Lyme disease can experience weeks, months or even years of symptoms including fever, heart problems, speech problems and paralysis of facial muscles.

To prevent tick bites, long, light-colored pants, sleeves and closed-toed shoes are recommended for those spending time in wooded or bushy areas with high grasses and leaf litter. When this is impractical during hot summer days, a periodic tick check is a good alternative. Hikers can plan a break every hour to check themselves and others for ticks. You can also use DEET-based repellants on skin and special fabric repellants on clothing.

"To boil it down on an individual basis, just be cautious when you're out there," Wilson said. He also advises dog-owners to check their dogs carefully after outings. "Dogs are like little brushes, brushing through the foliage. Even if you treat your dog for ticks, the ticks will still get on them, and then they could get in the car and get on you," he warned.

Beware of bedbugs:
Frequent travelers need to be aware of bedbugs. Bedbugs from a hotel room can be transported via clothing and luggage. Wilson says that many people needlessly spend hundreds of dollars to get rid of bedbugs. "One reason you might want to call us is to get a second opinion. In many situations, people can take care of it themselves. They don't really need to hire pest control."

ACVCSD services are provided free of charge so before spending money on pest control, it is wise to consult with a ACVCSD trained inspector and explore other methods if appropriate, such as using a bug bomb in a single family home. Although bedbugs may not be a vector for life-threatening disease, they can be a source of secondary infections and mental anguish.

About those annoying mosquitoes:
The biggest danger mosquitoes pose in Alameda County is West Nile Virus (WNV). Although Alameda County has never had locally-acquired cases of WNV, WNV-positive mosquitoes have been found. In general, those who contract WNV show no symptoms or exhibit a fever, but in severe cases - usually in older adults or those with weaker immune systems - it can cause brain damage, permanent muscle weakness and even death.

Although ACVCSD responds to almost every vector, it does not respond to mosquito complaints except in the City of Albany. Mosquito complaints in other jurisdictions should be directed to the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District at (510) 783-7744 or They provide free services resolving mosquito problems through inspections, identifying insects and providing mosquito fish for backyard ponds.

ACVCSD services are already paid for, says Wilson. "We've already got the tax dollars... call us and get some service from us." He adds, "Our whole aim is to help maintain and improve the public health of the community."

Vector information and complaints:
Alameda County Vector Control Services District
(510) 567-6800

Mosquito information and complaints:
Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District
(510) 783-7744

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