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West Nile makes mosquitoes public enemy No. 1


BATON ROUGE, La. - "I worry about the birds," Otis Sullivan said. On a hot, spongy day, Sullivan had stopped for a snack at the River Road Store in Woodville, Miss., just north of the Louisiana line.

"The bird is not biting you, though," said Betty Turner, who joined Sullivan with another man, William Ward.

"Long sleeves, that's what I do," Ward said. To ward off mosquitoes and the West Nile virus, he wore a white dress shirt with collar and cuffs firmly buttoned.

"Certain people say if you eat a banana, the mosquito is not going to bite you as bad," Turner said.

"I've heard they say garlic," Sullivan said.

Something akin to war is being waged this summer along the lower Mississippi River, the epicenter of this year's West Nile outbreak. Residents are deploying home remedies and common-sense defenses. Mayors are having their towns sprayed every day at dusk. Merchants are seizing on fear to sell magical new bug-fighting weapons, and public health agents are papering subdivisions with fliers.

With its bayous and backwaters, rice paddies, puddles and stagnant drainage ditches, the lower Mississippi is the nation's most fertile terrain for an insect that once left no more than a bump and an itch. Now it spreads a potentially deadly virus among blue jays and crows and occasionally horses and people.

This year's outbreak of West Nile virus is the nation's deadliest, surpassing the one three years ago, which hit New York state the hardest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that 28 people had died from the virus, including eight in Louisiana and three in Mississippi. Of 555 people infected, 396 of them - 71 percent - live in these states, most within 20 miles of the Mississippi River.

In some areas the increase in cases has slowed, but no one has made much of that yet. Mosquitoes around here breed until the first chill, usually in October.

To kill the eggs, highway crews in Vicksburg, Miss., lace ponds and ditches with larvicide pellets.

"Everybody's complaining because everyone's afraid," said Walter Bliss, assistant public works director for Vicksburg.

In the Vicksburg City Hall, Gwen Hogan, a receptionist, said her 15-year-old daughter must be home by 6 p.m. "At dusk, she's inside," Hogan said. "All doors are closed."

The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have appealed in vain for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which normally helps communities after hurricanes and floods.

But with tight budgets, the governors are marshaling their resources. A state-sponsored billboard in Baker, La., north of Baton Rouge, shows a black silhouetted female mosquito drilling into flesh. "Mosquitoes Can Kill," black letters say. "Fight the Bite!"

Public health officials in the two states go from town to town, handing out fliers and conducting classes in fighting mosquitoes.

On Aug. 17, officials of Ferriday, La., had a cleanup day to pick up old cars, tires and other waste that could contain stagnant, mosquito-breeding water.

Louisiana's tourist information office in Vidalia gives away bug spray. At the Monmouth Plantation, an inn in Natchez, Miss., complimentary bottles of spray are placed in the rooms.

Years ago, before the advent of air conditioning and chemicals, people in these towns made an art of fighting mosquitoes: Nets were hung over children's beds, and cow manure was burned around rural houses to ward off the pests.

In today's climate of fear, hucksters, like the mosquitoes, have begun to swarm.

A radio commercial offers the Mosquito Magnet, "the greatest technological breakthrough in mosquito control." An advertisement in the Concordia Sentinel, the newspaper serving Vidalia and Ferriday, says: "Protect your family from West Nile virus with the Mosquito Trap. Coverage up to 3/4 acre. Only $379.95."

There are few signs of a panic-driven rush for mosquito-fighting notions and gear, perhaps because the stores are stocked and ready. Along with mole traps, mousetraps, rat traps and fire-ant killer, a hardware store in Vidalia sells citronella sticks, OFF! and Cutter spray repellent, yard and patio foggers and mosquito repellent coils. Homeowners light the coils at one end and spread them around their patios, where they burn for hours.

In Natchez, across the Mississippi River from Vidalia, the Wal-Mart carries the Bug Button, an insecticide-soaked disk that "lasts up to 60 hours" pinned to a shirt. Besides repellents containing varying concentrations of the chemical DEET, the store stocks a mosquito head net and a 13-by-9-foot screen house for children to play in safely outside.

The growing use of the lotions and sprays troubles Frank Smith, a pharmacist who owns Concordia Drug in Ferriday. "DEET is not real good to have all over your system," Smith said. He said he recommended sprays with 20 percent to 30 percent DEET for adults and 10 percent for children.

Because of such concerns, some old remedies persist. In Baker, homeowners grow citronella bushes, the source of the repellent used in outdoor candles. In St. Francisville, La., Melissa Turner, a massage therapist, swears by patchouli.

"It's an essential oil," Turner said. "You put a few drops in a lotion that doesn't have other scents. I don't know if there's proof that it works, but it works for me."

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