West Nile aerial attack creates controversy in virus-stricken Dallas

Jason Sickles
The Lookout

DALLAS — On a cooler-than-usual Texas night, Macie Mills wasn't about to let a war on West Nile virus invade her patio time outside a local coffeehouse.

"I grew up with crop dusters in West Texas," Mills scoffed while curled up in a comfy chair.

Minutes later she and a friend watched a small twin-engine plane buzz over a hotel and a popular shopping center. From 300 feet, it dispensed an invisible fine mist of pesticides designed to attract and kill West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes.

Certainly not the renegade dusting of fields Mills remembers from back home, but the stakes are higher in the country's ninth-largest city full of freeways and tall buildings.

"Aerially spraying from a fixed-wing aircraft over cities at night is dangerous and only called upon if conditions are right and the health situation demands it," Joseph Conlon with the American Mosquito Control Association told Yahoo! News.

Dallas is suffering from the nation's deadliest outbreak of West Nile virus this year. Ten people have died and more than 200 others have fallen ill in less than two months, prompting leaders to declare a state of emergency. But aerial spraying is controversial because of safety concerns, cost and effectiveness.

Leaders acknowledged a public backlash, but said they had no other choice.

"I cannot have any more deaths on my conscience because we didn't take action," Mayor Mike Rawlings told reporters.

Aerial spraying hasn't been used in Dallas since 1966, when more than a dozen deaths were blamed on encephalitis.

There is no vaccine for West Nile virus, which more often impacts younger and older people. Symptoms can include headache, high fever, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, tremors, disorientation and paralysis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43 states have reported West Nile virus infections in people, birds or mosquitoes this year. Twenty-six people have died and nearly 700 have gotten sick.

"The 693 cases reported thus far in 2012 is the highest number of West Nile virus disease cases reported to CDC through the second week in August since West Nile virus was first detected in the United States in 1999," the CDC said in a statement.

Nearly half of those sickened have been from Texas, where 17 people have died. With several weeks still left in the peak West Nile season, the state fears it could be the deadliest year yet.

Dallas' increase in mosquitoes is being blamed on ideal breeding conditions: a wet spring in North Texas and the hot, dry weather now settled across the nation's heartland.

"Oh my gosh, a month ago you couldn't sit out in the backyard," said North Dallas resident LeeAnne Revell.

But the push for pesticides by plane hasn't been popular with everyone.

"Aerial poison spraying for West Nile starts in an hour," Kelley in Dallas tweeted. "If anybody needs me, the kittens & I will be hiding in the closet in our hazmat suits."

Not all politicians were in agreement either. Councilman Sheffie Kadane sent a last-minute plea for the mayor to change his mind, the Dallas Morning News reported.

"I implore you to consider natural herbicides as an alternative to spraying," he wrote. "Please do not spray!"

Public health officials and the company in charge of the mission promised that low dosages of Duet Adulticide, the EPA-approved chemical dropped from the plane, is not harmful.

Still, a recorded phone message sent out by the city advised citizens to stay inside during the spraying.

Many heeded the warning, but many didn't.

"Go in and take a shower if it falls on you," said Brad Hobson, who watched the planes outside the coffee shop with Macie Mills. "I figured I'd smell something, but I smell more diesel from passing cars."

Two planes treated 50,000 acres on Thursday before being halted by rain. Several more nights will be required to cover neighboring suburbs.

The pilots wearing night-vision goggles had to dodge at least one neighborhood Thursday: the one-mile no-fly zone surrounding former President George W. Bush's North Dallas home.