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Yellow fever mosquitoes among H.B.'s exotic realities of El Niño

From Asian tiger mosquitoes to yellow-bellied sea snakes, Southern California seemingly has turned into a tropical hotbed of mythic proportions.

Nearly every day brings new headlines of strange and exotic creatures invading the coasts or flying into inland backyards. Residents are getting bitten by ominous-sounding bugs; surfers are being chased by hammerhead sharks; poisonous serpents are slithering ashore.

What does it all mean? According to scientists and other experts, it’s easily explained in Spanish: El Niño.

The persistent warm waters have brought the sea creatures north, while the hot, humid conditions have helped the mosquitoes proliferate.

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The mosquitoes, in particular, are troublesome because the odds of them killing someone, while slim, are much higher than a skittish hammerhead or a random, half-dead sea snake that ambles to shore.

The Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District is on full alert after several yellow fever mosquitoes were found in Huntington Beach, Los Alamitos, Garden Grove and Mission Viejo.

And so far this year, 18 people have died in California from mosquito-borne West Nile virus, with 366 infections, according to the state. Two of the fatalities were in Orange County, which has had 63 infections this year as of Tuesday, according to Jared Dever, director of communications for the Vector Control District.

More than 100 mosquitoes carrying yellow fever were found in Huntington Beach in the latest sample Oct. 21, Dever said.

“A lot of the mosquitoes that we have collected were actually submitted to Yale University for genetic identification,” said Mary-Joy Coburn, public-affairs coordinator for the Vector Control District. “We need to find out where they came from because they have different characteristics.”

While Orange County is reacting to the yellow fever mosquito, Los Angeles has been affected by the Asian tiger mosquito, Coburn said. Both are pesky and invasive, biting during the day, and they can transmit infectious diseases including yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya.

However, Coburn said, the odds of contracting something are small, and simple eradication measures like getting rid of standing water can go a long way toward prevention.

“Using the term ‘yellow fever mosquito’ is kind of confusing a lot of people just because we don’t have yellow fever in the United States,” she said. “The diseases that we are more concerned about are dengue fever and chikungunya, which are normally found in the Caribbean.

“People who travel there are more susceptible and could very well be bringing that disease to the United States. And if these mosquitoes bite them while they have the active virus, then there could be the potential for an epidemic in Orange County.”

Coburn said initial field results were not encouraging. Residents need to do a better job of eliminating mosquito breeding areas, she said.

Residents can report mosquitoes at the district website, ocvcd.org.

Officially, the district is calling the yellow fever mosquito the more generic “invasive tropical mosquito” to try to prevent panic.

UC Irvine sociology professor David John Frank said he has been watching with some amusement how quickly people can leap to conclusions about the presence of unusual creatures.

“What’s interesting from a sociological viewpoint is the significance we attach to anachronistic events,” he said. “We anticipate a wet winter (which may or may not eventuate), someone finds a snake, some other folks report hammerheads. And then, like magic, the pieces assemble together into a great morality tale: Humans have intervened in nature’s systems (have plunged their hands into nature’s bloody heart). And nature now is repaying us with an apocalypse: serpents, mudslides and swarms of hammer-shaped sharks. It’s striking how quickly and seemingly effortlessly it all comes together.”

Regardless of the cause, solution or eventual outcome, people are being asked to adjust their lives.

The state’s Department of Public Health, for example, said that despite the lingering heat, people should reduce the risk of mosquito bites by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants at all times.

Staff writer Anthony Clark Carpio contributed to this report.


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