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San Antonio Slashed Its Mosquito Control Budget-Could It Respond To Zika?

Shelley Kofler
Texas Public Radio
City of San Antonio Vector Control Technician Rick Riojas

Health experts agree controlling the population of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry Zika is essential to preventing an outbreak of the virus.  So, does the City of San Antonio have the resources to do that?  In the process of reporting for our series, “Preparing for Zika in Texas,”  Texas Public Radio discovered San Antonio has drastically cut funding for the public health department’s mosquito control division. 

In San Antonio’s Lady Bird Johnson Park, Rick Riojas dips a ladle into a stagnant pool and examines its contents.

“Here we have two more mosquito larvae.  I haven’t seen any minnows in here so it’s safe to treat with oil,” he said as he pumps a canister of larvicidal oil and begins spraying a thin sheen on the stagnant water.

Riojas is currently the only licensed vector control technician working for the city’s health department.  The only Metro Health employee qualified to use this spraying equipment. The only health department employee authorized to fog with mosquito killing chemicals on the hundreds of acres of park property and the hundreds of miles of city right of ways.

Credit Shelley Kofler / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio's health department currently has just one licensed vector control technician who can spray to eradicate mosquitoes.

Metro Health Interim Director Dr. Vincent Nathan says even as his department focuses on destroying Zika-carrying mosquitoes the public should not be concerned that Riojas is currently the only city employee able to use the full range of treatments to eradicate mosquitoes.  Nathan says sanitary workers who usually inspect restaurants have been cross-trained to drop larvicidal bricks known as dunks into stagnant water.

“Eighty percent of what we do is dunks in standing water.  All 36 of our sanitarians right now are capable of doing that.  Dunks give us a 60- to 90-day window of having mosquito eradication in that area.  If we did spraying we would have to spray far more often,” says Nathan, though he acknowledges dunks don’t kill adult mosquitoes.

“True, but they kill the larvae before they become adults and it's far more effective,” he says.

Our questions about currently having just one licensed vector control technician led to several days of conversations with Metro Health.  Administrators first said the 36 sanitation workers could also apply the chemicals.  Not true. They then said the sanitation workers could apply mosquito killing chemicals if the technician was present.  Also not true. After more questions they told us that by the end of September, Metro Health plans to have seven or eight licensed vector control technicians like Riojas on the job. 

The reason for having just one licensed technician may have something to do with the fact that the city has cut the mosquito control budget by a whopping 75 percent in the past six years.  From $538,973 in 2011 with five vector-licensed technicians to $137,000 today.  There are currently two technician positions but one is vacant.   (See more budget numbers below)

Councilman Ron Nirenberg says he was unaware the mosquito control budget had been so dramatically slashed.

“Well, ultimately, I want confidence from our public health officials that we are taking care of and preventing illness.

Nirenberg is concerned.

“So, I would absolutely believe that we need to make sure, especially when there are grant funds available to departments like Metro Health, that we are tackling the serious challenges of maintaining the welfare of our community, and I would put mosquito control this season near the top.”

So, if locally transmitted Zika were found in the city’s mosquito population today is San Antonio prepared to respond?  The health department’s Vincent Nathan says yes.

“We would do a geo-code spraying and we currently have the capability of doing that,” says Nathan.

He says they would spray, with their one licensed technician, in the areas where infected people or mosquitoes are discovered.   And, he says, the city could ask the military, county, state and others for help.

Texas Public Radio has asked the city manager’s office to explain why the mosquito control budget has been dramatically cut.