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In a Decaying Queens Fortress, It’s One Man Versus 47 Sorts of Mosquito


In a humid, dungeonlike cell beneath a crumbling navy fortress in northeast Queens, Dr. Waheed Bajwa and his staff had been counting sleeping mosquitoes and attempting to divine the long run.

Quickly the mosquitoes would awaken and secrete rafts of goo into puddles of standing water and lay a whole bunch of eggs onto them that may hatch into larvae that may feed and develop up and mate and lay eggs of their very own — till someday in late summer season one among their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughters would chew a sparrow contaminated with West Nile virus after which, maybe, a human.

However that day was months off. On this balmy morning in mid-February, Dr. Bajwa, a mild-mannered, methodical, relentless medical entomologist who has spent 21 years heading the town Well being Division’s Workplace of Vector Surveillance and Management, hoped to seek out indicators that the approaching summer season could be merciful.

Final yr noticed the very best variety of human West Nile instances since 1999, when the virus first appeared within the Western Hemisphere in Queens and killed 4 New Yorkers.

Now, within the metropolis’s twenty fifth yr residing with the virus, Dr. Bajwa was chasing the aim he had by no means achieved: to make it via a whole New York summer season and not using a single human case of West Nile.

Dr. Bajwa’s warfare in opposition to mosquitoes and West Nile is waged by air and floor, from the swamps of Staten Island to the manholes of the Higher West Facet. His weapons embody dry ice and bacteria-impregnated corncob granules, fermented rabbit chow, copper BB pellets and a tool referred to as a Multi-Tube Vortexer.

Within the dripping cell in Queens, Dr. Bajwa pointed a flashlight on the 300 mosquitoes clinging to the ceiling of Entrance 1, Room 3 of the town’s official mosquito hibernaculum and pronounced the early outcomes encouraging: “If we might have come final yr, there could be hundreds really in a single single room.”

New York Metropolis, with its 5,600 acres of wetlands, 150,000 storm drains and miles of historical sewer tunnel, is a sprawling mosquito paradise. It’s residence to 47 species of Culicidae, together with two that had been first recorded in america in Dr. Bajwa’s 2018 research, “A Taxonomic Guidelines and Relative Abundance of the Mosquitoes of New York Metropolis.” The paper revealed that 21 new species had taken up residence right here because the final survey within the Thirties.

There are bluish mosquitoes, golden mosquitoes, striped mosquitoes, noticed mosquitoes, mosquitoes with apt species names like Aedes excrucians and Aedes vexans. However none preoccupy Dr. Bajwa, 64, as a lot as the most typical species, Culex pipiens, the northern home mosquito — the most important supply of West Nile an infection in New York.

West Nile is often transmitted to people this fashion: A chook that has the virus is bitten by a mosquito. Then the mosquito, now a provider, bites a human.

In some components of the nation, home mosquitoes feed totally on birds. However the New York Metropolis model is a hybrid between a subterranean pressure, which developed a style for mammalian blood from sewer rats, and the extra frequent aboveground model that prefers birds. This makes it an ideal “bridge vector” — an agent that spreads illness from one species to a different.

Final yr, Dr. Bajwa believes, a brand new pressure of West Nile emerged that birds had not had time to construct immunity to, so extra birds contracted the virus. The contaminated birds handed the pressure to metropolis mosquitoes, who handed it on to 46 people, greater than double the everyday quantity. Two folks died.

West Nile has killed 59 folks in New York Metropolis through the years. Greater than 400 folks have contracted West Nile neuroinvasive illness; its signs embody mind irritation, paralysis and everlasting nerve harm. Town estimates that there have been 12,000 undiagnosed instances of West Nile fever.

The mosquito marketing campaign begins every winter within the Queens hibernaculum, a warren of 9 dismal rooms beneath a 120-year-old gun battery at Fort Totten Park that disuse has reworked right into a laboratory: Every room has completely different mild, temperature and humidity situations, making the fortress a really perfect place to watch and mannequin winter survivorship charges and permitting the town to get a bounce on forecasting the approaching season. Some hibernating mosquitoes end up to have West Nile hibernating inside them.

The battle reaches its fiercest stage in late August, when the an infection price in mosquitoes peaks and essentially the most human instances develop. Vans sweep via residential neighborhoods spraying pesticide.

There has by no means been a yr with fewer than three human instances. If the town lets up the strain, Dr. Bajwa mentioned, “the variety of instances goes to go very excessive.”

Dr. Bajwa found the fun of entomology rising up in Pakistan, the place his father, the agriculture director within the mountainous province of Azad Kashmir, took him to the lab and on nature walks. His first insect loves had been dragonflies and butterflies, however he has grown to admire mosquitoes, though his job requires that he slaughter them by the hundreds of thousands.

“Should you have a look at them underneath the microscope, oh, they give the impression of being stunning — I’ll present you!” Dr. Bajwa mentioned. “Their antennas. Their eyes, their compound eyes, their mouthparts.”

Some are notably hanging. Beneath a microscope, Psorophora ferox, the white-footed woods mosquito, discovered sometimes on Staten Island, is a riot of iridescent coloration, purple and inexperienced and gold, as if it had been showered with pixie mud.

Dr. Bajwa is especially keen on the elephant mosquito, Toxorhynchites rutilus, one of many largest species in america, half an inch lengthy, with dapper, blue-speckled legs. “These are a favourite as a result of they feed on different mosquitoes,” he mentioned.

In late spring, the town begins bombing breeding grounds with larvicide — ground-up corncobs saturated with naturally occurring soil micro organism which can be lethal to child mosquitoes however usually innocent to different life.

Dr. Bajwa oversaw the operation at Freshkills Park on Staten Island, a savannah of mild hills laid atop what was as soon as the world’s largest landfill. It was June 8. A helicopter roared in, refilled with pesticide, took off once more. The pilot, John Sondgeroth, a Vietnam fight vet, flew low over Contemporary Kills creek, strafing the waterline, focusing on the roots of marsh grass the place one other species that carries West Nile shelters and feeds.

“Identical to mowing the garden,” Mr. Sondgeroth mentioned. “You commute, forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards.”

The Well being Division conducts larviciding citywide close to the beginning of the season to chop the general inhabitants. It limits its spraying for grownup mosquitoes, which includes much less environmentally benign chemical substances, to neighborhoods the place virus exercise is excessive, later in summer season. Mosquitoes develop up quick, progressing from larva to expectant mother hungry for blood in a few weeks.

Close to Freshkills, Dr. Bajwa led a short facet expedition to a marshy thicket throughout from an Amazon warehouse, one among greater than 400 spots the place the Well being Division units mosquito traps. His assistant director for vector surveillance, Kamesan Kanapathipillai, ducked behind a tree and emerged with an equipment that regarded like a selfmade lamp connected to a tray of slimy liquid.

This was a entice for pregnant mosquitoes. The lure was a slosh of water into which rabbit-food pellets are dissolved and left to rot, simulating the puddles and ponds wealthy in decaying plant matter the place mosquitoes lay their eggs.

A fan mounted above the water sucked the mosquitoes — there have been a whole bunch — right into a mesh cage. Mr. Kanapathipillai transferred them to a cooler of dry ice, killing the mosquitoes whereas protecting any virus inside them alive.

The mosquitoes could be examined within the metropolis’s public well being lab, in teams of fifty, often known as swimming pools. In a typical yr, about 700 mosquito swimming pools check optimistic for West Nile, out of about 5,000. Final yr the town discovered 1,555 optimistic swimming pools, essentially the most it has ever recorded.

Your probabilities of getting West Nile depend upon the place you reside, as a result of completely different species dominate completely different neighborhoods. The frequent home mosquito is present in a crescent stretching from japanese Queens to southern Brooklyn to the east tip of Staten Island. Staten Island can be thick with unbanded salt marsh mosquitoes.

Then there’s Dubos Level Wildlife Sanctuary, a mosquito playground in Far Rockaway, jutting into Jamaica Bay, the place the Well being Division just isn’t allowed to spray. It’s the area of the black salt marsh mosquito. They don’t carry West Nile however are terrifying nonetheless. At Dubos Level, Dr. Bajwa’s vector surveillers set their traps and run.

“You possibly can’t get away,” Mr. Kanapathipillai mentioned. “Your face, up your nostril, your mouth, your ears.” A single entice set in Dubos can seize 5,000 mosquitoes in 24 hours.

A discipline journey to the sanctuary confirmed that life there’s wild certainly. On the path that skirts the marsh grass, a dense cloud of bloodlust envelops the customer. A whole lot of tiny needles penetrate all uncovered flesh.

I had let Dr. Bajwa know that I deliberate to move out to Dubos Level. He emailed me that afternoon: “I simply needed to succeed in out and inquire about your expertise within the Dubos Level marshland. Whereas I belief that your time within the marshland was pleasing, I needed to take a second to deal with any potential challenges or surprising conditions that will have arisen throughout your journey.”

I discussed that I acquired bit dozens of instances in a matter of minutes. Dr. Bajwa, whose private mosquito management plan contains carrying lengthy sleeves even on the most popular days of midsummer, despatched a hyperlink to the CDC’s mosquito chew symptom and therapy web page. “Thanks as soon as once more for sharing your expertise,” he wrote. “When you have any additional questions or want extra data, please don’t hesitate to succeed in out.”

He has his personal methodology of coping with mosquitoes. “After I discover myself stress-free in my yard, I all the time arrange a pedestal fan,” he wrote. “Mosquitoes occur to be weak fliers, unable to deal with even a delicate breeze.” When he does get bitten, he added, “I make a aware effort to not give in to the temptation of scratching.”

The Workplace of Vector Surveillance and Management is quartered on the eleventh flooring of the town’s Public Well being Laboratory, a colorless bastion of forms on First Avenue in Manhattan.

Every weekday in the summertime, the contents of dozens of traps across the metropolis are introduced in to the workplace and processed. Throughout a two-day interval in July, Mr. Kanapathipillai and a colleague, Hazel Paul, sitting at their microscopes, recognized and logged 26,000 particular person mosquitoes.

After the species that carry West Nile are sorted into tubes of fifty, two BB-gun pellets are positioned in every tube. The tubes are despatched right down to the testing lab on the ninth flooring the place they’re agitated within the Vortexer, a high-speed mixer, till the mosquitoes are pulverized. Then they’re centrifuged to extract any West Nile RNA.

The workplace, which has an annual finances of $4 million, was created in 2001 as a part of the town’s response to West Nile. The illness was first recognized right here after an 80-year-old man in northern Queens died in late August of 1999 of what was initially misdiagnosed as St. Louis encephalitis.

Inside two months, 44 folks had been hospitalized, and three extra had been lifeless. Town’s mosquito management equipment, which Dr. Bajwa mentioned had been largely dormant because the Nineteen Seventies, was resurrected. There was appreciable public alarm. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani held frequent information conferences to announce setbacks and advances within the battle. When Central Park closed in a single day for spraying after the virus was discovered there, it was front-page information.

A big-scale epidemic by no means occurred, which Dr. Bajwa attributes to the town’s aggressive techniques and speedy testing operation.

“Inside 24 hours, we’re in a position to determine the place the virus is circulating within the metropolis of New York, and we instantly we go there and we begin doing larviciding,” he mentioned.

Dr. Bajwa urged in opposition to complacency in any respect prices. “West Nile virus is a deadly illness,” he mentioned.

On Aug. 3, Dr. Bajwa stood within the car parking zone of Baisley Pond Park in southeast Queens, a mile from Kennedy Airport. No human case had been recorded within the metropolis, but it surely was early, and the outcomes from the mosquito traps had been regarding.

“We’ve a really excessive stage of West Nile virus on this space,” he mentioned gravely.

It was simply earlier than sundown. The park was emptying out, however the car parking zone was filling up with Well being Division pickup vans. Mounted within the mattress of every was a Grizzly Extremely Low Quantity Fogger Sprayer.

Town sprays residential neighborhoods with Anvil pesticide, which might irritate folks’s respiratory techniques and hurt aquatic life, solely as a final resort, Dr. Bajwa mentioned. However the park and the realm round it met the brink: optimistic swimming pools at quite a few places and several other weeks of “persistent positivity.” (A metropolis environmental influence research in 2001 discovered the impact of pesticide minimal in contrast with the danger from West Nile.)

Because the vans set out, loudspeakers mounted on escort automobiles blared a warning: “To attenuate publicity to the pesticide, please go indoors instantly till the vans have handed.”

Luke Howell, a veteran exterminator, flipped a change by the dashboard of his truck.

“OK, I’m flowing,” he mentioned. A plume of fog issued from the sprayer. Forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards. The truck crept previous silent lawns and driveways. Up 121st Avenue. Down 217th Road. As Mr. Howell approached a pair standing by their automotive, he turned off the sprayer. The couple pulled their T-shirts up over their noses. Mr. Howell handed by and turned the spray again on.

The vans could be out till 2 or 4 a.m. Dr. Bajwa went residence to take a seat at his pc and look forward to a potential name. “I’m residence, however I don’t sleep,” he mentioned. The subsequent day could be busy: “I’ve been instructed by our public well being laboratory that we’ve 78 new optimistic stories.”

The streak continued: extra optimistic swimming pools — the rely handed 500 — however no human instances.

Within the fourth week of August, dangerous information trickled in.

Two folks in Queens had contracted West Nile. So had somebody in Manhattan. By Aug. 28 there have been half a dozen instances.

Dr. Bajwa had recognized a yr with none human instances was an elusive aim. “The possibilities for that to occur are very low,” he mentioned.

In his workplace on First Avenue, Dr. Bajwa studied maps and sifted knowledge. There have been extra traps to set, extra neighborhoods to spray. The distant descendants of February’s mosquitoes had been thick within the air, and the season nonetheless had two months to go.


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