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From microscopes to mosquitos

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet staff
Friday December 28, 2001

UC scientist spends spare time trying to stop outbreaks 


Jan Washburn spends his days studying insects at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. He sits at a microscope or computer pondering the physiology of caterpillars, say, or the reasons why certain bacteria cause their stomachs to explode. 

Once a month, though, Washburn wears a different hat. He drives down to Hayward to sit on the board of Alameda County’s least-known governmental agency. 

For the last nine years, Washburn has been Berkeley’s representative on the Alameda County Mosquito Abatement District’s board of trustees. He’s the man you can blame, if you are partial to the habit, when a bite from a female Diptera spoils an otherwise lovely evening. 

The Mosquito Abatement District is an odd entity. Like the East Bay Regional Park District or AC Transit, the MAD is an independent district which doesn’t answer to the county Board of Supervisors or the state. 

It has one purpose and one purpose only – to address all mosquito-related problems in the district. Members of its board of trustees are appointed by the city councils of each city in Alameda County. 

“So long as we do our job, no one knows we exist,” Washburn says. 

Mosquito districts appeared in California in 1915, when the state legislature passed the Mosquito Abatement Act. The act came at a time when malaria was endemic in vast regions of California, principally in the Central Valley, and was killing people and livestock alike. 

Washburn says that before mosquito abatement, few settlers braved the dangers of the Central Valley. 

“People don’t realize it, but mosquitos have played an important role in the spatial colonization of our state,” he says. 

Today, the Alameda County MAD has a full-time staff of 13 and an annual budget of around $1.4 million, which is raised through a small property tax assessment. 

The MAD’s primary function is to control the population of mosquitos and to monitor outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases like encephalitis. The district runs a number of programs designed to limit the mosquito population. It does outreach to local schools. It gives free mosquito-eating fish to people with ponds. 

Every spring, district employees plant chickens around the county to serve as disease monitors. They draw the chickens’ blood every few weeks and send it off to a lab to be screened for mosquito-related illnesses. 

Given that malaria has been all but eradicated and other mosquito-borne diseases are incredibly uncommon, some may wonder whether the district is obsolete. 

John Rusmisel, MAD general manager, disputes the notion. 

Rusmisel says that the district is currently facing two major challenges – the Asian Tiger Mosquito invasion and preparation for the West Nile Virus, which both he and Washburn say will almost certainly hit California eventually. 

The Asian Tiger Mosquito has been hitching a ride across the Pacific on shipments of “lucky bamboo,” a newly popular houseplant coveted by practitioners of feng shui. Interior decorators adept at the ancient art-cum-religion hold that lucky bamboo brings its caretaker good fortune and prosperity. 

Ever since the Asian Tiger – a “universal vector” renown for its nasty bite, according to Washburn – was found to infest the plant, extra controls were placed on its importation. 

“It was only because of on-the-ball mosquito district workers that we realized this was a problem,” says Washburn. 

The West Nile virus, which causes a particularly deadly form of encephalitis, could be an even greater threat. In the last few years, the disease has established itself in the Northeastern United States, where it has killed several elderly people. 

Washburn says that the virus, which is carried by mosquitos and birds, will likely appear in California within the next few years. Birds from the East Coast and the West Coast spend their winters together in Central America – it’s just a matter of time, he thinks, before the virus hops over to our birds. 

Rusmisel says that the district has been preparing for the arrival of the virus, and has drawn up rudimentary plans to combat it. And that, he says, shows the importance of mosquito abatement districts. 

Not all areas, not even all urban areas, are covered by MADs. If you want to see what a city with no MAD looks like, says Rusmisel, you have but to look across the Bay to San Francisco. 

“When West Nile comes, it’s going look just like New York City over there,” he says. “We’ll help them out, but we have to take care of ourselves first.  

“It would be nice if they showed a little incentive.” 

Washburn, too, gives the impression that areas without a MAD are little more than banes for those of us with one.  

“Mosquitos don’t respect district borders,” he says. 

He recalled an incident that took place a few years ago, when Rusmisel’s then-counterpart, Chuck Beesley of the Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District, suddenly found himself in the middle of a plague of Aedes squamiger, the winter salt marsh mosquito. 

Hundreds of irate citizens called Beesley’s office, demanding that he deal with the problem. The only difficulty, Washburn said, was that these squamigers were breeding up in the North Bay and migrating inland to attack suburban Contra Costans. 

“Boy, when that hit, Chuck was hurtin’,” Washburn laughs. 

Washburn says he enjoys being involved in the district because it gets him out of the lab and allows him to “see how things are actually done.” 

More than that, though, Washburn sees his nine years of mosquito-related public service as no more than his duty. 

“It sounds corny, but I think I’m a good citizen,” he says. “I have some training that is useful to the district, so I employ it.”