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The Mosquito Gap: Climate Change and Infectious Diseases

OK, I admit it, I’m a freeloader.

My neighbors asked if I’d go in on a mosquito control service last spring, and I turned them down. I was skeptical about whether the “eco-friendly” service would actually work. But I was mostly taken aback by the cost: $750 for the season.

Several neighbors went ahead and paid for the service, which proved so effective I was able to enjoy my back yard for the first time without first dousing myself with bug spray.

I felt guilty — and not just because I was mooching off somebody else’s pricy pest control. I’d also been forced to recognize yet one more way privileged people like me are often insulated from public problems.

As fears of mosquito-borne diseases increase and public pest management spending falls far short, private control services are rapidly expanding. The Zika outbreak in 2016 helped kick up residential mosquito control revenues by an estimated 12.6 percent. Demand has also created a market for automatic home spraying systems, which run about $4,000.

For low-income Americans, the cost of these services would be prohibitive. Yet poor neighborhoods are more likely to have severe mosquito problems.

A three-year study in Baltimore found that the greater prevalence of good mosquito breeding grounds in poor neighborhoods, including abandoned buildings and accumulated trash, led to worse infestations than in more affluent areas.

Another study in one Georgia county found that neighborhoods made up mostly of people of color were 4.5 times more likely than whites to be at risk of West Nile, while residents of high poverty areas were 5.5 times more likely to be at risk.

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control received reports of more than 2,000 cases of West Nile virus from across the United States — and 121 people died from the disease. The actual number of cases is likely much higher, since the poor are also more likely to lack health insurance, and thus avoid seeking medical treatment if they do become ill.

Public health problems related to mosquitoes aren’t going away.

As climate change improves environmental conditions for mosquitoes, it increases the risks of the diseases they carry. According to Climate Central, in dozens of cities across the Midwest, Northeast, and along the Atlantic Coast, mosquito seasons have grown by at least 20 days over the past 35 years.

Despite this growing menace, public funding for mosquito control has declined by more than 60 percent since 2004, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

In North Carolina, for example, the state government cut all funding for such programs in 2014. And while some counties and cities in that state began paying for private services, other cash-strapped communities have not. The Asian tiger mosquito, which has the ability to transmit West Nile virus as well as other diseases like Chikungunya and dengue fever, has been found in every county in the state.

In the long-term, the impacts of this underfunding could be catastrophic.

In 2017, a team of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and other researchers analyzed the potential costs of a major Zika attack in the Southeast United States and Texas. They concluded that efforts to control and treat the disease, which causes neurological defects in growing fetuses, could cost from $1.2 billion to as much as $10.3 billion.

On top of all the other challenges facing people in poor communities, they shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from mosquitoes. Unfortunately, the White House budget proposal for 2019 would cut resources for the Centers for Disease Control — the nation’s health protection agency — by 20 percent.

Closing the mosquito gap is going to take a much bigger commitment than that.

More articles by:

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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