RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And health officials around the country are raising warnings about West Nile Virus. The U.S. is seeing the worst outbreak of the mosquito-borne illness since it was first detected in 1999. So far this year, 26 people have died, and about half of the country's 700 cases are in Texas - most of them in Dallas County. This week, for the first time in almost half a century, the county will begin aerial spraying to kill mosquitoes. B.J. Austin of member station KERA has the story.
B.J. AUSTIN, BYLINE: Snider Plaza is a busy shopping area in University Park, an affluent north Dallas neighborhood that includes Southern Methodist University and the soon-to-open George W. Bush Presidential Library. People here are worried about the escalating number of West Nile Virus cases. Store owner Sebastian Ahmadi says bring on the planes and get rid of the infected mosquitoes.
SEBASTIAN AHMADI: I look forward to it. Anything to prevent from anything, you know, to cause diseases or a hazard to people's health I think is the right thing to do.
AUSTIN: But shopper Robert Bergance is not so sure about the plan to strafe his neighborhood with pesticide.
ROBERT BERGANCE: My concerns are my pets. And we have some owls that live in our backyard, and I am concerned about them. What effect is that going to have on them?
AUSTIN: In Dallas County, 10 people have died, more than double the previous record. But health officials urge caution. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people who are bitten by infected mosquitoes - about 80 percent - show no symptoms and don't get sick. Less than 1 percent die or end up paralyzed or with encephalitis or meningitis. The commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, Dr. David Lakey, says this is a public health emergency.
DAVID LAKEY: Right now, Texas has half the West Nile cases in the nation. Dallas County has half the cases in the state of Texas. So about a quarter of all the cases in the United States are in this county. And so this isn't business as usual.
AUSTIN: Health officials say a record drought then a mild winter and a wet spring have produced a bumper crop of mosquitoes now. What they don't know is why so many mosquitoes are infected with West Nile Virus. Lakey acknowledged opposition to the airborne attack, especially since the mosquito population bounces back after two weeks.
Still, he says, aerial spraying has proven effective and is used elsewhere, including Florida, Massachusetts and California. Last week, Dallas County declared an emergency and asked the state for airplanes because ground spraying wasn't working well enough. At a meeting Tuesday, Dallas County commissioners heard opposition to the spraying from people concerned that the pesticide kills bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. But Gretchen Brasch tearfully made her case for it. She was diagnosed with West Nile three weeks ago, and is slowly recovering.
GRETCHEN BRASCH: We have a very serious, escalating problem that is affecting human health in this city. So please just think about the people. I'd look at the people more than anything else on this.
AUSTIN: Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says aerial spraying is the right thing to do. He says there can't be any more deaths because action was not taken at this point. The aerial spraying is to begin soon, weather permitting. Planes will fly about 300 feet over Dallas and the surrounding suburbs where mayors have declared public health emergencies and war on mosquitoes from the air. For NPR News, I'm B.J. Austin, in Dallas.
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