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City chooses prevention over spray for skeeters

If you have been scratching that mosquito bite and wondering when the city Health Department is going to spray pesticides to prevent the spread of the West Nile virus in Queens, take heed: it is not.

At least not yet anyway. A spokesman for the city Health Department said this week the 2001 strategy for battling the mosquito-borne virus emphasizes larviciding rather than using pesticides to attack the adult insects and said no pesticide spraying has been planned so far for Queens.

Less than two weeks ago the Health Department announced its first finding of the West Nile virus in Queens in a sparrow and mosquito pool in Bellerose. Greg Butler, a department spokesman, said he could not confirm where in Bellerose the infected bird or insects were found.

As borough residents spend their third summer worrying about the West Nile virus, which can lead to a flu-like illness or even death in the elderly and small children, the Health Department last week announced the virus may have infected more people than previously thought.

A study released in the British medical journal The Lancet last week said that for every person infected with the West Nile virus in 1999 approximately 140 more cases of the virus went undetected.

In 1999 the virus, which is transferred from infected birds to human via mosquitoes, was first discovered in the Powell’s Cove section of College Point and was originally identified as St. Louis encephalitis. That year four people in Queens died after being infected by West Nile and dozens throughout the city were infected.

That year the Health Department’s insecticide campaign against West Nile sparked controversy when several environmental groups protested against the use of the pesticide malathion and charged the city with not properly informing people before spraying the chemical.

In 2000 the city’s West Nile plans included an emphasis on larviciding, or killing mosquitoes in their infant stages, to reduce the insect’s population. It also switched pesticides, using the less toxic Anvil instead of malathion.

The 2001 efforts to control West Nile include what the Health Department described as increased testing of birds and mosquitoes and “intensified larval surveillance and larviciding activities, particularly in parks and green areas.”

Butler said the Health Department has increased its surveillance in Bellerose and other areas where the virus was discovered. Butler also said larviciding has been increased in parks, green spaces, catch basins, golf courses and cemeteries in the area.

In 1999 the Health Department conducted a door-to-door survey in Queens to determine how far the West Nile virus had spread and eventually tested 677 people for the virus.

Estimating from the Queens survey results, the Health Department said in a news release last week approximately 8,200 people may have been infected with West Nile in 1999. Roughly 60 cases were actually identified in the city that year.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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