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Expert: The most important thing you can do to protect against mosquito bites

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Even though he uses a coffee mug with a giant mosquito drawing on the front, Randy Buchanan cannot stand pesky mosquito bites. Buchanan leads the Henrico County mosquito surveillance team that recently discovered a large amount of mosquitoes along the Henrico-Richmond line that tested positive for West Nile virus.

"I hate them (mosquitoes).  I have great respect for them, but I hate them," Buchanan said Wednesday inside the mosquito testing room at the Henrico County Public Works Department room off Woodman Road.

Randy Buchanan

Randy Buchanan

During peak mosquito season, which goes from April to October, Buchanan and his surveillance technicians set up traps in every portion of the county each week to attract and capture mosquitoes.  The "blood meal" trap uses dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide, to mimic mammal breath and a lure of lactic acid to put off the scent of human odor.

Technicians collect samples of various mosquito species, bring them back to the lab for identification, and then test them for diseases that could potentially spread to humans. The collection and testing happens every day of every week during peak mosquito months, Buchanan said.

The "blood meal" trap

The "blood meal" trap

"We bring back and identify those mosquitoes so we understand the mosquito population dynamics," he said.

It was in the course of this work that technicians discovered a large amount of mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus.  Both Henrico County and City of Richmond health officials sent our alerts to residents about the positive tests.

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes

"People need to understand, it's nothing to panic about," Buchanan said.

So far this year, Buchanan said the CDC has report only one case in Virginia of a human contracting West Nile virus, and the CDC has classified the virus as a seasonal epidemic, which Buchanan said means it is present in mosquitoes in North America every summer and is here to stay.

"It flares up in the summer time and goes until the fall," Buchanan said.  "The most important thing to understand is how to protect yourself from mosquito bites."

The lab.

The lab.

Buchanan practices what he preaches.  Henrico urges residents to "pick one day each week to fight the bite." Culex mosquitoes, the species that can carry West Nile, laying their eggs in stagnant water that has been sitting for at least one week.  Official say residents should take one day each week to walk around their yard and tip over sitting water in things like corrugated drain pipes, bird baths, or children's toys.

When spending time outside, especially at dusk and night when Culex mosquitoes tend to bite, officials suggest wearing light clothing with long sleeves and pant legs or using a preferred brand of bug repellent.

"West Nile virus is here, and so we should take precautions to not get bit by mosquitoes. There are things we can do," said Dr. Danny Avula, Director of the Richmond Health District.  Dr. Avula said eight of 10 people who contract West Nile virus do not even realize they have it and that the rarely results in serious illness.

"That typically happens in a patient population who are elderly, 60 and above, or who have underlying conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease," Dr. Avula said.

According to the CDC, about one to five people who are infected develop a fever with other symptoms such as a headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, or rash. Most people with this type of West Nile virus disease recover completely, but fatigue and weakness can last for weeks or months.