County tells South Cook to cooperate in mosquito fight

Tuesday, August 9, 2005
By Gregg Sherrard Blesch
Staff writer

As two more Cook County residents were confirmed sick from mosquito-borne West Nile virus Monday, the county's public health director pleaded with the Southland's mosquito control agency to join efforts to kill the adult bugs with pesticide mists.

The South Cook County Mosquito Abatement District's trustees, in turn, told their longtime director, Dr. Khian Liem, to cooperate and spray West Nile hot spots in spite of his insistence that the strategy is useless.

The county already spent about $36,000 to spray within the district's boundaries Sunday after Liem refused to do it.

Property owners south of 87th Street to the Will County border and west to Willow Springs pay taxes to support the abatement district's work. The 2005-06 budget maps out $3.1 million in expenditures, including a salary of $128,000 for Liem.

Liem was under fire for not wanting to spray three years ago after West Nile made its first big showing in Illinois.

"I should not be at this point in our control efforts years later," said Stephen A. Martin Jr., the Cook County Public Health Department's chief operating officer.

Another omission in the district's activities that Martin called "baffling" is a lack of mosquito traps in Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park, which suffered the most infections in the Southland three years ago.

Instead, the Illinois Department of Public Health has taken responsibility for monitoring those communities.

It wasn't clear Monday how the abatement district will go about spraying or increasing other efforts now that trustees agreed to cooperate better with other agencies.

The county hired Clarke Mosquito Control at a cost of $77 a mile to spray overnight Sunday parts of Chicago Ridge, Hometown, Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn, Palos Park, Palos Heights and Orland Park.

The usual procedure is to follow up with a second spraying over the same area in seven to 10 days. In the past two weeks, West Nile-infected mosquitoes piled up in traps laid by health officials, and the state's first five human cases of the season were reported.

The city of Chicago and the Northwest Mosquito Abatement District responded by spraying the areas with the highest concentrations of infected mosquitoes.

Liem, though, rebuffed letters from county, state and federal public health agencies asking him to join in.

Last week, Martin asked for three years of the district's financial statements, audits and equipment inventories. Liem calls his request a fishing expedition to find grounds for getting rid of him. In fact, he expected Martin to ask trustees to fire him Monday. But whether Liem loses his job, Martin said, isn't his decision to make.

"We're just trying to get an understanding of what the district has been doing," Martin said.

In his letter outlining his opposition to spraying, Liem referred to his experiences with two viral outbreaks while he lived in Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the Illinois outbreaks of St. Louis encephalitis in 1975 and West Nile in 2002.

All four, he wrote, behaved the same: "A big bang the first year and a few cases afterwards for approximately five-six years."

The letter continued, "There is nothing we can do to stop the transmissions of the virus right now other than pretending to kill the adult mosquitoes."

The abatement district has worked with municipalities to drop poison tablets in catch basins and storm sewers to kill mosquito larvae, which public health experts agree should always be the first course, along with eradicating standing water, to control mosquito populations.

In an interview Monday, Liem suggested the chemical used in the spraying, a synthetic version of a bug killer that occurs naturally in chrysanthemums, is dangerous in spite of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's position that it's harmless when applied in the right concentration.

Robert Novak, a medical entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he supports spraying when the traps show concentrations of infected mosquitoes.

But he agreed with Liem, a longtime acquaintance, that the research on spraying is thin. "What impact does it have?" Novak said. "To be truthful with you, no one has really answered that question satisfactorily."

Martin, though, said spraying is worth it even if the results are limited. "If I kill one mosquito, that could be the one that won't bite my child," he said.

The Illinois Department of Public Health confirmed two new human cases of the virus, bringing this year's total to seven.

A 54-year-old Cook County woman with West Nile encephalitis was hospitalized and has been released. A 74-year-old man, who Martin indicated is a Southland resident, remains hospitalized with encephalitis. Gregg Sherrard Blesch may be reached at or (708) 633-5962


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