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Schools in regional Victoria have been urged to hire pest controllers to kill mosquitos after months of wet weather led to a rise in mosquito populations and mosquito-borne diseases, especially in the north.
The strengthened safety advice came as the state recorded its third death this mosquito season from Murray Valley encephalitis, a virus that had not been detected in Victoria since 1974 until a woman died of the disease last month.
High-risk schools have been urged to hire pest controllers to spray their grounds to prevent mosquito-borne viruses.Credit: Dave Hunt
The Education Department wrote to high-risk schools earlier this week asking them to seek professional help to apply insect sprays to areas where mosquitoes were likely to rest, such as thick shrubs and building eaves, and to make insect repellent available to staff and students.
It has offered funding to 500 high-risk schools, early childhood centres and camp providers to cover the cost of spraying.
Schools have also been advised to move activities indoors if mosquitoes are active.
The latest mosquito surveillance report by the Health Department showed the virus had been detected in mosquitos across regional Victoria, including at Mildura, Swan Hill, Horsham, Loddon, Greater Bendigo, Greater Shepparton, Indigo and Wodonga.
Murray Valley encephalitis was among five mosquito-borne viruses that posed a public health risk in Victoria, the report said. The other viruses are Japanese encephalitis, Ross River virus, Barmah Forest virus and the Kunjin strain of the West Nile virus.
Liz Trewick, principal of St Joseph’s Primary School at Rochester in Campaspe Shire, said her school had sprayed its grounds for the first time this year.
“We received public health advice that we’re in a high-risk local government area and so we’ve taken necessary steps to prevent the breeding and presence of mosquitoes,” she said.
The Health Department confirmed on Tuesday that a man in his 70s had died from Murray Valley encephalitis after being bitten by an infected mosquito in the flood-ravaged Campaspe Shire, which takes in Echuca and Rochester in the state’s north.
All three confirmed cases of Murray Valley encephalitis in Victoria this mosquito season have died.
Melbourne University biology professor Ary Hoffmann said changing weather conditions made it difficult to predict where the virus was spreading.
“We do have to accept the fact that climate change is increasing variability, which means we have to be much more prepared,” he said.
Hoffman said the La Nina extreme weather pattern – which recently ended after affecting Australia’s weather for nearly three years – had increased mosquito numbers.
Mosquito expert Cameron Webb, an associate professor from NSW Health Pathology, said the Murray Valley encephalitis virus was “widely active” and many people might have been exposed.
However, he said most people were asymptomatic, with as few as one in 1000 people developing symptoms.
These symptoms may include headaches, fever, nausea and muscle aches. Those with severe infection can develop severe headaches, neck stiffness and drowsiness.
Webb said recent flooding had created ideal breeding conditions for mosquitos and waterbirds.
He said the mosquitos picked up the virus from waterbirds before passing it onto humans.
While there is no vaccination or treatment for the virus, Webb said people could protect themselves by covering up when they were outdoors and wearing repellent.
“Even though summer’s over and there are fewer mosquitoes about … that doesn’t mean that there’s not a health risk,” he said.
“As we head towards the Easter long weekend and the school holidays, people should still be taking steps to avoid mosquito bites.”
Georgia Wakefield, the supervisor of camping shop BCF Mildura, said sales of mosquito repellent, nets and zappers had surged since early December.
“We have sold out of repellent quite a few times,” she said. “People are wanting to protect themselves against the increase in mosquitoes and some are worried about getting infected.”
Earlier this year, Agriculture Victoria asked horse owners to rug up their animals to prevent mosquito bites and to keep them indoors at dusk and dawn.
The Campaspe Shire confirmed it was part of a statewide program managed through the health department that involves trapping mosquitoes, surveillance as well as spraying and fogging where it is deemed necessary.
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