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West Nile threat doesn't deter lake visitors

Santa Barbara News-Press 1 August 2005

Thomas Schultz

Government warns Goleta spot is prime for mosquito bites

Fishing for catfish, bass, perch or crappie, Lee Harris sat alone along the edge of Lake Los Carneros in Goleta, unafraid of darting mosquitoes drawn to flight by the setting sun.

"I love coming up here," said the Santa Barbara man, who compared the bugs to "tiny little vampires."

"If I let mosquitoes stop me from coming to the lake, I'm a sorry person," he said. "They have to eat, too. If they can get to me and get a drop of my blood, more power to them. I'm not going to let the mosquitoes or whatever keep me from enjoying my life."

Such defiance flies in the face of government warnings to avoid the placid lake from dusk to dawn. Recent tests show those tiny bloodsuckers carry West Nile virus, but visitors to the popular recreation spot still show up every evening to bike, boat, walk or relax.

"I really haven't noticed anything different," said Linda Foster, a residential caretaker who has lived by the lake for 17 years.

Despite the warnings and the mosquitoes, West Nile virus is not limited to the Goleta Valley, although officials say heavier surveillance there has created the impression that Goleta is the hardest hit part of the county.

A new $200,000 state grant to Santa Barbara Coastal Vector Control District will help officials to combat the disease from the South Coast to portions of the North County.

The announcement of the grant Friday came a little more than a week after a Santa Barbara horse succumbed to the disease and as officials noted that nine American crows in Goleta and Santa Barbara -- and one unlucky Western scrub jay in Buellton -- had been found dead and infected in the past three weeks.

This brought to 25 the total number of afflicted dead birds recovered countywide in 2005.

Although the virus transferred by mosquitoes affects horses, birds and humans, it does not hurt dogs or cats.

Most infected humans never get sick, but about 20 percent have flulike responses.

In rare cases, the virus can lead to brain inflammations such as meningitis or encephalitis. People with compromised immune systems are more prone to developing symptoms.

Some visitors to Lake Los Carneros cited the low incidence of sickness for their casual attitude.

"If we were infants or 80 (years old), it would be something to worry about," said Paul Berquist, who fished the lake on a boat Thursday.

As of Friday, West Nile was detected in 45 of 58 California counties in 2005. There have been 31 known human cases for the year statewide, one fatal.

No people are known to have contracted the disease locally since it arrived in Santa Barbara County last year.

Lake Los Carneros emerged as a potential hot spot in early July, and authorities have already applied two rounds of treatment to control mosquitoes there. A third round could happen in the next week, said Mitch Bernstein, director of the Vector Control District.

Authorities would use a "growth regulator" called methoprene, sold under the name Altosid and described by its manufacturer as an environmentally friendly substance that "won't upset the food chain or impact fish and other nontarget species."

The grant money also will expand mosquito treatment to unincorporated parts of the North County, where none currently occurs. North County cities are not part of the Vector Control District, and therefore they cannot benefit from the grant money.