The Heat Is Online

Mosquito Outbreak Frightens New Yorkers

Exotic twist to perils of life in NYC: mosquitoes

By Fred Kaplan, The Boston Globe, Oct. 1, 1999

NEW YORK - The area around Powell's Cove Park in northern Queens is a tidy, upper-middle-class neighborhood of spacious, single-family houses with BMWs and SUVs parked in the driveways and satellite dishes perched on the roofs.

It hardly seems like the breeding ground for a disease more commonly found in the Third World.

Yet this is the main "hot zone" of New York's great mosquito scare, which has hospitalized 43 people with West Nile encephalitis and killed six, including a Canadian businessman who caught the virus when he visited Queens last month.

And the disease could spread to other regions of the country, as birds carrying it migrate south for warmer weather.

More than 1,300 dead birds, mainly crows, have been reported in the New York City area since the alarm bells went off a month ago. The federal Centers for Disease Control tested 39 of these birds and 429 live ones. In both categories, more than one-third tested positive for the disease.

The virus, which causes inflammation of the brain, was transmitted to humans by mosquitoes that have bitten the infected birds. A place like Powell's Cove Park - with its vast puddles of swamp water that drain slowly, if at all - is an ideal nesting pool.

The city has been spraying insecticides over the entire city, especially over Queens, the borough harboring two-thirds of the confirmed cases of the virus.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani declared victory over the mosquitoes a couple of weeks ago, but after a torrential rainstorm, they revived and the spraying resumed.

Starting today, health officials will take blood samples of 300 randomly chosen Queens residents in an attempt to trace the virus's path.

Jesse Kim, a wholesaler with two children, lives across the street from Powell's Cove Park. "Everybody around here is worried," he said yesterday. Kim has spent more than $100 on household insecticides and insect repellents - sprays, candles, and zappers. Despite all of his and the city's efforts, he said, "I still see mosquitoes in the house."

At a nearby Target discount store across from another ''hot spot,'' a swamp that was once the site of an airport, bug sprays have been moved from the camping department to the pharmacy.

"We've sold about twice as much bug spray as we usually do," said Andre Janiak, the store's pharmacist. However, he added, "Nobody's in a panic. New Yorkers don't panic over very much."

Elizabeth Friedl was one of several shoppers who confirmed this point. A retiree and, therefore, vulnerable to the virus, which most readily hits the very old and very young, she said, "I really haven't been concerned. I've seen fewer mosquitoes than usual in fact, maybe because they've been sprayed - though I have seen a lot of dead squirrels."

Others were less complacent. Anna Avalone, shopping with her 3-year-old son, said, ''We've curtailed a lot of outdoor activities. And when they spray, I don't leave toys or his bicycle out on the terrace. I get a little paranoid, but you never know.''

It is hard to say which has made people edgier - the insects or the insecticides.

Dan Andrews, spokesman for Queens borough President Claire Schulman, said, ''The calls we've been getting are mostly about the spraying, not about the virus.''

If the virus had broken out a year from now, it might not have loomed so large in Powell's Cove Park.

Just as the crisis began, the city's Parks Department was set to break ground on a project to reconstruct the salt marsh that once dominated the cove - a task involving the removal of a 9-foot-thick layer of rubble.

Mark Matsil, chief of the department's natural resources group, said that in the decades after World War II, thousands of acres of marshes were turned into dumping grounds for construction-and-demolition rubble.

Salt marshes had provided drainage for rainwater. But as the rubble grew, the water sat stagnant. ''So these areas became a breeding habitat for mosquitoes and ticks,'' Matsil said.

The city has been restoring these marshes, but the job is far from finished.

This story ran on page A03 of the Boston Globe on 10/01/99.
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Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.