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Hansen: The exotic realities of El Niño invade society

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? Well, 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 still much higher than a skittish hammerhead or random, half-dead sea snake that ambles to shore.

So far this year, 18 people have died in California from West Nile Virus, according to the state, with 366 infections.

The Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District is already on full alert after several yellow fever mosquitoes were found Oct. 13 in Mission Viejo. Field personnel have been canvassing neighborhoods near La Paz Road and Interstate 5, and they recently expanded their search across the freeway into Laguna Hills.

Vector Control has also identified yellow fever mosquitoes in Huntington Beach, Los Alamitos and Garden Grove.

“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 district. “We need to find out where they came from because they have different characteristics.”

Coburn said while Orange County is reacting to the yellow fever mosquito, Los Angeles has been impacted by the Asian tiger mosquito. 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 not to get too excited just yet. The odds of actually 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 Caribbeans.

“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 the initial field results were not encouraging, however. Residents need to do a better job of eliminating mosquito-breeding areas.

On Oct. 16 and 17, district personnel inspected 80 homes near the infected area and 46 were breeding various stages of the mosquito.

“And then 16 of those homes have all stages of the mosquito, so they found eggs, the larvae, the pupae and the adults flying in those parcels,” she said.

The inspectors continued their work last week, and 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 and minimize the hysteria.

Meanwhile, the social impacts of all these nefarious creatures are similarly interesting.

UC Irvine sociology professor David John Frank has been watching with some amusement over how quickly people leap to conclusions.

“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.”

In other words, it’s as if people love a plague — preferably with locusts.

There is no denying, however, that the times are changing. Regardless of the cause, solution or eventual outcome, the effects are being felt daily. And people are being asked to adjust their lives accordingly.

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

As if that’s going to happen.

What will happen remains to be seen. But with any luck, it won’t include fire and brimstone and gnashing of teeth.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.


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