By 1951, the mosquito-borne illness malaria was considered by public health officials to have been eliminated in the United States.
And after malaria was eliminated, so were the offices that were set up to monitor and control the disease, known as mosquito control districts.
“And as we abandoned those, then we set ourselves up for the situation where a mosquito-borne disease could spread very rapidly across the country and cause thousands of cases of illness,” said Kristy Bradley, the state epidemiologist at the state Health Department.
Cut to 1999.
West Nile virus entered the United States and has continued to grow, with Oklahoma and the rest of the nation set to break records of reported West Nile virus disease and deaths.
And because of some unfortunately timed federal grant funding cuts, the state Health Department is limited in how much data it has on where the mosquitoes causing West Nile virus are and how much money it can give out to cities to fight the virus.
Nearing a record
So far this year, the Health Department has confirmed 101 reported cases of West Nile virus and five deaths related to the virus in Oklahoma. That's only six cases away from the 2007 record of 107 reported cases.
Until a McAlester man was first to contract West Nile virus in June, the state Health Department did not know that mosquitoes in Oklahoma were carrying the virus.
This was not usually the case. For about 10 years, the Health Department had a contract with Oklahoma State University's entomology department to conduct mosquito trapping and testing inside six key areas of the state.
Bradley said that information would have alerted the agency earlier in the summer that infected mosquitoes were in Oklahoma.
Not only is the information used to warn health officials of what's on the horizon, but it is used to tell communities which neighborhoods have high rates of infected mosquitoes.
“Knowing what's happening in the mosquitoes is really key in guiding your prevention and control program around any disease that's transmitted by a mosquito,” Bradley said.
After West Nile virus first presented itself in the U.S. in 1999, a federal agency reported to Congress that a local disease surveillance and response system was critical and allowed local governments to quickly spot and investigate the outbreak.
The state Health Department has received the federal funding, an epidemiology and laboratory capacity grant, since 2002. The federal funding was earmarked for specific programs, meaning the state Health Department had no choice in cutting the mosquito surveillance and prevention.
The largest grant was in 2004 and was $485,662. This year's grant was about $100,000.
The Health Department paid OSU anywhere from $8,164 in 2008 to $32,018 in 2011 to monitor the mosquito population.
Lisa Coburn spent seven years traveling the state and setting out traps of swamp water to attract mosquitoes. Coburn and other staff would pool the mosquitoes in groups of 50, grind them up and test the sample for West Nile virus.
Traveling the state was the expensive part. The traps had to sit overnight, meaning someone had to stay overnight in a hotel.
Coburn said the information that OSU provided to the state was helpful for cities and counties. It helped them plan where to spray and when to spray.
“It would bankrupt a city if they tried to spray all the areas,” Coburn said.
Crisis in Texas
Mendy Spohn is well aware that, just over Oklahoma's southern border, Texas is facing a major public health crisis, with 45 percent of all West Nile virus cases in the nation reported from Texas.
Spohn is the county health department administrator for six counties near or on Oklahoma's southern border.
Part of the grant that the state Health Department received not only went to mosquito surveillance. It also went to prevention and control. Money was sent to county health departments across the state, and those health departments would give money to cities that needed assistance battling the mosquito population.
Spohn said she is aware of the funding cuts and has seen city and county officials work together to get the job done.
Cities like Ardmore have employees who are certified to spray pest control for mosquito prevention. Smaller cities might not have the money to send someone to get certified, so cities with certified employees have helped out.
“Even if we did have the money to give to (for example) Healdton — if they don't have somebody certified to do it, they're not able to apply it,” Spohn said.
The state Health Department is working with the CDC and discussing using public health emergency preparedness funding to help fill the gaps of need for this summer.
One of Spohn's counties is Carter County, which has the highest per capita number of West Nile virus cases in the state.
West Nile virus season isn't expected to end until late October after the first big freeze.
“I am not saying if the CDC were to have a pot of money that they could give us, that that wouldn't be helpful, especially when you start seeing this big rise in cases,” she said.
“If we were able to target those efforts, I think it would be good if we were able to help those (smaller cities).”