In the wake of Beaufort County’s first confirmed human case of West Nile virus last year, state and local health departments are seeking help from the public in reducing the risks of infection.
As in years past, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is asking the public to safely retrieve “freshly dead” birds and submit them to the closest local health department office for testing.
“The dead bird surveillance program plays a key role in alerting the department to West Nile virus activity across the state,” Dr. Chris Evans, State Public Health Entomologist, said in a news release.
Beaufort County’s first human case was confirmed on Oct. 20, shortly after Hurricane Matthew. Due to privacy laws, the individual’s sex, gender, age and other specific information are not available.
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DHEC confirmed eight cases of West Nile virus in humans across the state last year. In addition to the case in Beaufort County, there were three cases in Richland County and two each in Dorchester and Horry counties.
Mosquitoes become infected with the virus when they feed on infected birds that carry the virus in their blood. After about two weeks, infected mosquitoes can transmit the virus to humans and other animals.
In 2016, 20 birds were submitted from across the state to DHEC and tested for West Nile virus. Of those submitted, one bird from Charleston County tested positive for the virus.
“Unfortunately we have not had a lot (of dead birds) submitted through the program,” said Gregg Hunt, director of Beaufort County Mosquito Control. “I think people see a dead bird and keep walking. People don’t want to touch it, and I respect that.”
In the last 14 years, Beaufort County Mosquito Control has seen only about 12 to 18 dead birds submitted to its office.
“It would definitely increase our surveillance of mosquito-born disease, so I encourage residents and visitors to look out for dead birds, but make sure to take precautions,” Hunt said.
In 2003, nine dead birds tested positive for the virus in Beaufort County. Since then, Beaufort County Mosquito Control has made some changes to fight the virus on a local level.
The department discovered that mosquitoes were breeding in large numbers in the county’s underground storm system. In order to try to eliminate the breeding, the department started treating 22,000 catch basins each spring.
Starting in April each year, the department inserts a contraption into the basin that releases an insecticide to kill the mosquito larvae that grows in the standing water.
“I think treating all those catch basins is one of our most effective strategies,” Hunt said. “Each spring it has had a major impact on seeing minimal West Nile cases in Beaufort County.”
Since any item that holds water for more than a few days can breed mosquitoes, the department also runs a “Fight the Bite!” campaign to encourage residents and visitors to eliminate standing water on their properties.
In 2014, the department launched an Apple and Android application to serve as the host for all mosquito information. The application can be used to request service or inspection of mosquitoes, find out information on ways to eliminate mosquitoes, contact the mosquito control department and fill out a report for dead birds.
The application gives users an opportunity to submit a photo and location of a dead bird, read about safe handling of the bird and find out where they can submit the bird for testing.
Signs of West Nile virus in birds include weakness, shaking or an inability to walk or fly.
The birds DHEC is requesting submissions for include recently deceased (non-injured, non-decayed) crows, blue jays, house finches, and house sparrows.
DHEC is accepting bird submissions through Nov. 30. Instructions on how to safely pick up and transport a bird to the closest DHEC local county health department or Environmental Affairs office are available online at scdhec.gov/birdtesting.