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West Nile virus harder to understand, combat in Oklahoma because of funding cut

Because of a federal funding cut, public health officials in Oklahoma have less data and fewer resources to combat West Nile virus.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: August 31, 2012

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.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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