Thursday, May 24, 2018
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State lacks funds for virus fight

Ohio has a 75-page plan to fight the mosquito-borne disease West Nile virus.

What Ohio doesn't have is much money for the fight.

That lack of funding makes some people nervous because the first reported case of West Nile virus in Ohio was confirmed Tuesday. A dead blue jay in Lake County tested positive for the virus.

Infected mosquitoes bite birds that can travel to other areas and get bitten by mosquitoes that bite humans and infect them. While the virus is deadly to many bird species, especially crows and blue jays, it seldom causes serious problems in humans. In rare cases, the disease can cause fatal brain swelling. It has killed nine people in New York and New Jersey since 1999.

While officials from the state health department and other agencies have been busy drafting a response plan to the West Nile virus, the head of the state's efforts to fight it acknowledged that more money is needed.

Dr. Richard Berry, head of the state's West Nile virus work group, said earlier this week that the state has about $350,000 from federal and state health department funds to fight and monitor it.

But the state's plan makes clear that a large burden of fighting the virus will fall on the shoulders of the state's 144 local health departments. Lucas County is fortunate because it has what is considered one of the strongest mosquito-control programs in the state.

But Dr. Berry said many health departments don't have the money to dedicate to fighting West Nile, a problem Brad Espen, director of environmental health for Wood County knows.

“I'm very concerned about it,” Mr. Espen said. “We don't have adequate funding at the health department. We're a large county and to implement an effective program would cost a lot of money. We could really use some extra money [from the state],” he said.

Wood County is doing better than some counties because it has been busy doing surveillance. It has been trapping mosquitoes and sending them to the state lab for testing. But if Wood County turns up a case of West Nile virus, it has no money set aside to treat mosquito-infested water or, in a worst-case scenario, spray adult mosquitoes.

In Erie County, the situation is even more grim. Stephen Casali, the director of the Erie County health department, said no mosquito surveillance or testing has been going on in his county.

“We're not prepared for an outbreak,” he said of West Nile. “It makes you nervous.”

He said when he started working for the health department in the mid-1970s, the state was active - and more generous to the counties - in fighting a mosquito-borne disease known as St. Louis encephalitis. But this time around, there has been no financial help from the state, he said.

Ohio's financial efforts pale in comparison to some other states where West Nile virus has shown up. Pennsylvania dedicated $9.8 million last year and $11 million this year for West Nile virus efforts with most of that going directly to counties, according to Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

New York, which was the epicenter for the outbreak of West Nile virus in the U.S. in 1999, spent $14 million in 1999 on such efforts and $30 million last year. Most of the funds went directly to counties, according to Kristine Smith, associate director of health for the New York State Department of Health.

““I don't want to be telling your state what to do, Ms. Smith said, “but the reality is it has cost New York a large amount of money to respond to this emerging disease ... It would be irresponsible, and some might even say unconscionable, for government to sit on their hands and hope for the best.”

Mari-jean Siehl, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health, said it's not accurate to say Ohio hasn't spent much money on West Nile virus efforts. While the state legislature has not dedicated any money specifically to fight West Nile virus, large amounts of staff time - and thus financial resources - have been spent on West Nile.

“Within existing budgets, there's been quite a substantial amount of commitment,” she said. “A lot of peoples' time is spent on West Nile virus.”

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