Swarms of mosquitoes are already buzzing above ponds and wetlands across Horry County prompting local officials to begin spraying for the pests a month earlier than normal.
The ground is still saturated with water from last fall’s historic rain and flooding, and with water brimming so close to the surface, it has created a perfect environment for breeding mosquitoes.
Officials expect that the wet fall combined with a warm winter and spring will boost mosquito populations, and with it, the chance of spreading mosquito-borne illnesses including the Zika virus.
Although no local mosquito-borne Zika virus has been reported in the U.S., the White House held a summit on the virus last week with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and urged local and state officials to begin efforts to combat the disease by controlling the mosquito population.
Localities don’t usually start truck spraying operations until May, but numerous communities have already been treated by truck sprayers including Little River, Conway, Forestbrook, Surfside Beach, Palmetto Pointe area, Garden City Beach, Burgess Loris, and Green Sea, as well as parks and boat landings. Aerial spraying is expected to begin in June.
Horry County officials started spraying in mid-March while the City of Myrtle Beach began mosquito control operations this week. North Myrtle Beach plans to start early spraying as well within the next two weeks.
“We’ve been busy,” said Lisa Bourcier, Horry County spokeswoman.
Health officials were focused in previous years on preventing the spread of the West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses like encephalitis, chikungunya, dengue, and canine heartworm.
You’re going to see an outbreak around here like you’ve never seen.
Al Allen, Horry County councilman
But the Zika virus outbreak as close as South America has U.S. health officials planning to protect pregnant women here against the illness, which has caused birth defects in which the baby’s head has formed too small. The virus is spread primarily through mosquito bites, however some cases have been reported in which the disease spread through blood transfusions and sexual contact.
If the Zika virus does migrate, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) warns that the Aedes albopictus mosquito found throughout the state is a potential carrier of the Zika virus, while the Aedes Aegypti mosquito found in small numbers in Charleston County would be the most likely carrier.
Common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis and lasts for several days, but has not resulted in serious illness for the carrier.
“Because of this Zika outbreak, counties along the coast of South Carolina are going to have to get serious with mosquito control,” said Al Allen, Horry County Councilman and owner of Allen Aviation, a company that provides aerial mosquito spraying.
“This can affect our quality of life, our tourism economy, our golfing,” Allen said.
Chilly temperatures Tuesday night and another cold front moving across the Grand Strand Saturday will slow down the population explosion, but that break will be short-lived, Allen predicted.
$520,000Horry County’s mosquito control budget
“Once you start seeing temperatures stabilize in the mid 60s and higher, you’re going to see an outbreak around here like you’ve never seen,” Allen said.
“There is so much water standing throughout the county from rain and flooding, and as temperatures begin to warm and water begins to drop, it’s going to leave standing stagnated water in large wooded areas and fields,” Allen said. “Any place that can hold a half-cup of water can hatch thousands of mosquitoes.”
Horry County plans to spend more than a half-million dollars on mosquito control this year for ground and aerial spraying, depending on landing rate counts.
County officials have also mapped the sites of bee hives and installed GPS units in spray trucks to protect the hives from spraying, Bourcier said.