School districts in some Southern states are taking aggressive measures to protect students from being bitten by disease-carrying mosquitoes because of increasing fears of the West Nile virus.
Those steps are especially vigorous in Louisiana, where there appears to be a greater prevalence of mosquitoes carrying the virus.
Officials of the 33,000-student St. Tammany Parish public schools in Covington, La., for instance, are telling principals to limit outdoor recess time and to keep all physical education classes indoors. This school year, the district is also providing insect repellents to students who participate in after-school activities for use with parental permission. And all nearby ponds are being stocked with mosquito-eating fish.
Schools in the district have also been instructed to remove outdoor containers that might collect water, or to drill holes in the bottoms of the containers so the dirty water, which attracts mosquitoes, drains and dries.
The West Nile virus is most dangerous for elderly people with underlying health problems and for young children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus causes flu-like symptoms, such as slight fevers, headaches, neck stiffness, disorientation, muscle weakness, and skin rashes.
However, less than 1 percent of mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus, and less than 1 percent of the people who are bitten by infected mosquitoes will contract the virus, according to the CDC.
So far, 480 cases of West Nile virus have been reported nationwide in 2002, and 24 of those people have died, according to the CDC. Louisiana tops the list with 171 reported cases and eight deaths, followed by Mississippi with 91 cases and three deaths, and Texas with 38 cases and one death.
Response in Houston
In Texas, the 208,000-student Houston school district is also responding to concerns about the virus. The district isn’t directly providing mosquito repellants, but students are allowed to bring insect repellent lotions to school for self-application. In addition, letters with basic facts about the virus have been sent to parents, and school maintenance workers have been told to eliminate areas of standing water on school grounds.
In Mississippi, the state’s “Fight the Bite” program encourages schools to include students in the effort to prevent West Nile infection. The state is educating students on conditions that increase mosquito populations, symptoms the virus displays, and methods of prevention.
While the state is not asking schools to limit student outdoor activities, Christie Farese, the Mississippi Department of Education’s public relations director, said state officials were taking the threat seriously and were asking all schools to make an effort to maintain cleaner campuses that would tend not to attract mosquitoes.