If mosquitoes with West Nile virus turn up again this year in Hamilton County — as they already have in Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis — we may not know it. Or not until infestations of infected mosquitoes spread, and doctors start reporting the disease.
Why? Because among the many cuts that would flow from County Mayor Jim Coppinger’s short-sighted budget slashing is elimination of the Hamilton County Health Department’s environmental health services unit.
This is the unit that has been responsible for detecting mosquito-borne infections through its mosquito surveillance and spraying operations. Last year, for example, the unit’s workers found mosquitoes with WNV by regularly testing standing water in some 300 areas of the county.
To tamp down the spread of infections, the unit also regularly sprayed and fogged areas know to have heavy concentrations of mosquitoes.
The environmental health has provided other services, as well. These include groundwater protection, rabies control and health and safety programs. When it has found health-risk problems, it has alerted area citizens of rising incidences of environmental hazards and informed us how to avoid related health care problems, in addition to its own preemptive work.
Thanks to its monitoring, spraying and fogging operations, the environmental health unit has significantly contributed to the state’s effort to keep the West Nile virus at bay. The combined results for the state show a decline from a high of 658 mosquito pools with WNV in 2009 to 403 last year. The state’s number of humans, horses and birds infected by WNV fell from a 2002 high of 56, 141 and 823, respectively to 4, 3 and 0 last year.
That shows that the work of the environmental units of the state-mandated health departments in all of Tennessee’s counties have risen to the challenge. But as the latest reports of WNV in Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis show, it would be foolish to quit the prevention programs now.
Coppinger should recognize that. His cuts in the County Health Department and nearly two dozen civic agencies will all have dire consequences. Abused children won’t be cared for. Health clinics and services for the county’s neediest citizens will vanish — though not their needs. And WNV will stealthily return. But it’s not too late to reverse the cuts.