TIFTON -- When people think of public health workers, they might imagine doctors in white lab coats or nurses drawing blood in a sterilized room, but some public health workers spend their days trekking through mud, cobwebs and swamps in an effort to study and stop the spread of disease by mosquitos.
Sheppard Martin is one such public health worker. A 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate student, Tift County Health Department Office of Environmental Health intern and Tifton native, Martin has been researching the county's mosquito population throughout the summer. Each day he travels into the most densely infested areas of the county -- the bogs, ponds and forested areas where the pests thrive.
Working on a master's degree in environmental health, Martin is a spy of sorts. His job is to perform surveillance on the mosquito community by trapping the insects and then sending them back to UGA for study. He uses two types of traps with two different purposes.
One trap is called a "light trap" which he hangs from a tree limb. The trap includes a thermos filled with dry ice; the smell of the ice attracts mosquitos to it. When they near, they notice a tiny light bulb that draws them toward it and at that point, they are sucked into a net which traps them. The light trap catches all sorts of mosquitos which are used to study which type of species are prevalent in an area.
The second type of trap is a "gravid trap," which unlike the other sits on the ground. It consists of a vacuum-like tube and netting situated over a noxious-smelling pan of stagnant water mixed with rabbit feed. The trap catches gravids, female mosquitos which are looking for a place to lay their eggs. The females lay eggs in stagnant water and the rabbit infusion, as the water in the pan is called, attracts them.
"They look for a place to lay eggs and once they get there, they're sucked in and can't get out," Martin said.
Most of the females caught in a gravid trap have recently fed and though few people realize it, only female mosquitos feed on blood. The trap is used to catch the insects and send them for study at UGA, where they are tested for diseases such as West Nile virus, Eastern and Western Equine Encephalitis and other types of encephalitis that are spread by the flying bugs. Since 2001, at least four people have been diagnosed with West Nile in Tift County. Mosquitos also carry heartworms to dogs and can spread malaria, although that disease has not been a problem in Georgia.
Martin has been working with the county to develop an integrated mosquito management program and then will write a thesis on his work in Tift County when he returns to Athens. He said there are four categories to an integrated mosquito management program. Those include surveillance, such as he has been doing with the traps; source reduction; biological and chemical control measures; and public education.
Source reduction is the easiest way in which the average citizen can help stop the spread of mosquitos.
"If you go outside and see water that's been sitting in your yard for several days, you know it's stagnant," Martin said. "Go out and look at it and look for larvae. You can see them swimming around."
Because the pests breed in water, emptying containers of standing water can drastically affect mosquito populations. For instance, people can pour the water out of old tires, litter such as cups, and any other object that collects rain. It takes about a week for mosquitos to grow from eggs to adulthood, so emptying containers such as dog troughs or bird baths once per week can also help stop population growth.
"Source reduction is the most important," said Martin. "If you eliminate the source, you eliminate the problem."
Source reduction and biological and chemical control measures overlap in some ways. By applying mosquito dunks to places prone to flooding, the mosquito larvae can be killed. Dunks are small briquettes of chemical larvicide that kill the young mosquitos before they reach adulthood. Relatively inexpensive, a pack of six dunks can be bought for less than $10.
Each dunk covers about 100 square feet of space and lasts for about 30 days. Placing them in boggy areas such as drainage ditches can help fight the mosquitos. The dunks also have the ability to remain dormant if they remain out of water. For instance, if a ditch were to dry up, then the dunk would reactivate itself when the next rain came.
Adulticides are also useful in fighting mosquitos. The adulticide spray kills adult mosquitos when it makes contact with them. The Tift County Road Department sprays adulticide on city and county streets in an attempt to control pest populations in residential areas.
Public education is an aspect of mosquito management which involves letting the public know what they can do to stop mosquitos. For instance, Martin gets permission before leaving traps at a owner's home. While asking permission, he also briefs the owner on ways they can fight mosquitos personally including source reduction and the use of dunks.
For personal protection, wearing insect repellents containing the chemicals DEET or picaridin helps to protect against bites and thus the potential spread of disease. Wearing long sleeves, pants and shoes and socks can also provide a measure of protection against bites.
For more information on mosquito control near your home, call the environmental health office at 386-7969.
To contact reporter Dusty Vassey, call 382-4321, ext. 208.
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