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A Run on Bug Spray Amid Fears of West Nile Virus

In Uncategorized, West Nile Virus on August 26, 2012 at 9:25 am

One bottle of mosquito repellent was all that remained at a Dougherty’s Pharmacy in Dallas.


Published: August 24, 2012

DALLAS — If there was an aroma that defined life in this city, maybe it was the scent of chicken-fried bacon and other exotic deep-fried specialties at the annual State Fair of Texas. Maybe the city smelled like football, or steakhouses, or money, or some combination thereof.

Mark Graham for The New York Times

Katharyn DeVille, who was hospitalized after being bitten by a mosquito, said, “I have migraines, and this was worse.”

But these days, there is something new in the air, and it is everywhere: the sweetly pungent odor of spray-on mosquito repellent.

As the city and its nearby suburbs cope with a deadly outbreak of West Nile virus, the bug-spray shelves of convenience stores and pharmacies are emptying out. In the upscale neighborhood of Preston Hollow, a section of Aisle 3A at Dougherty’s Pharmacy was nearly bare: 87 out of a stock of 88 bottles of OFF! had sold.

“OFF! is the new Chanel No. 5 around here,” said Carol Reed, a longtime political consultant whom D Magazine once dubbed the No. 1 Dallas insider. “I now put on insect repellent the same way I do sunblock. But we are Texans, so we fight something every summer.”

State health officials confirmed that since June 1, 640 people have been infected with West Nile, 23 of whom have died. Dallas County is the epicenter of the mosquito-borne illness that has spread across Texas and other parts of the country. Ten people have died in Dallas County and more than 200 others have been sickened, the highest number of West Nile-related deaths and infections of any county in the United States.

In addition, state officials are investigating but have not yet confirmed three other possible West Nile-related deaths, including one in Dallas County.

In response, the mayor of Dallas has declared a state of emergency, low-flying planes have waged an aerial pesticide assault and slow-moving trucks have sprayed on the ground.

One day last week, the Texas Poison Center Network experienced a spike in calls statewide, receiving the most calls in a single day since a 2007 peanut butter recall. Out of 1,491 calls, 716 were from people concerned about West Nile virus and the pesticide spraying.

“We have had calls from people saying, ‘O.K., I have a bunch of mosquito bites and I’m nauseous, what does this mean?’ “ said Melody Gardner, director of the North Texas Poison Center at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, which handled most of the 716 calls.

At another hospital, Methodist Dallas Medical Center, there have been a couple of cases of people who were bitten by mosquitoes rushing to the emergency room and bringing the suspected culprits with them, in the hopes of getting the insects tested for West Nile, a hospital spokeswoman said.

And yet, despite the fatalities and the nearly $3 million countywide spraying operation, the outbreak has not caused widespread panic. Many of those who have died were elderly men and women who had underlying conditions, a fact that many residents recite as the reason for only mild alarm.

People still sit outdoors at cafes and restaurants in shorts and T-shirts, and joggers still huff down the sidewalks before dusk, fearing neither mosquito nor chemical agent. Two days after declaring a state of emergency, Mayor Michael S. Rawlings was in downtown Dallas to see the musical “Chicago.”

Amid the sunshine on Thursday afternoon, many of those running and walking along the popular Katy Trail here were doing so without the aid of bug spray.

“I could care less,” said Josh Tucker, 36, a financial analyst for a real estate company who was deep into a three-mile-plus jog. “For the most part, I think it’s overblown.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is a sprawling 12-county region that is home to more than six million people and is known by its labyrinth-sounding nickname, the Metroplex. If any good has come of the outbreak, then perhaps it has succeeded in shrinking the Metroplex to a more small-town scale, uniting residents of different cities and incomes the way blizzards and blackouts often unite New Yorkers.

In Dallas, many people know someone who has gotten ill or has died, and many more know someone who knows someone.

“I was getting my hair cut last week,” said Roy W. Bailey, the chief executive of a private equity firm who lives in Preston Hollow. “My barber has two customers who have died. That really just slaps you in the face. This is real. This is not something that people are just blowing off.”

Jacqueline DeVille, 8, knows someone affected by the virus, too: her mother, Katharyn DeVille, who spent eight days in a hospital after getting bitten by a mosquito in the family’s backyard in the suburb of DeSoto. Mrs. DeVille, 42, was not sure what she was doing the moment she was bitten.

“I was just doing regular stuff, swimming and probably cooking out,” Mrs. DeVille said. ”There were some days when we would all notice that we would start slapping ourselves, because something was biting.”

It all started July 30, when Mrs. DeVille felt as if she had the flu. Then her fever climbed and she got the chills. She went to a clinic, which sent her to a hospital emergency room in Dallas. The doctor there told her not to worry, and blood tests came up negative, she said.

But nobody knew what was wrong with her, and by that time she had broken out in a rash. By Aug. 8, she kept getting worse, and a severe headache crept up. “It was like an ax in my head,” she said. “I was miserable. I have migraines, and this was worse.”

The next day, Mrs. DeVille went to the emergency room at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, where she was admitted and told she had West Nile and other complications.

“Oddly, I was kind of relieved,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “A, it had a name. And B, I knew I wasn’t contagious to any of my family members, and that was really important to me.”

Mrs. DeVille had lost, in a sense, a month of her life, celebrating her birthday in bed, missing her daughter’s first day of school. She does not venture much into her backyard since being released last Friday, and worries that too many people have an ‘It wouldn’t happen to me’ attitude.

“I think that if we’re all cavalier like that, when people around us are getting sick, if you don’t at least get a can of OFF! and keep it handy, just give yourself that chance not to get sick,” she said. “Because, believe me, you don’t want this.”

On Thursday evening, Mrs. DeVille relaxed at home on the sofa, her daughter by her side. Her phone was in arm’s reach, as was a bottle of mosquito repellent.


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