|West Nile Threat Rises in California as Pools Lure Mosquitoes |
The 9,000 unsold houses sitting empty in Northern California's Sacramento and Yolo counties aren't just a headache for owners: They're a threat to public health.
The danger is in their yards, where deserted swimming pools, spas and ponds provide prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes. That heightens the risk of West Nile virus, which mosquitoes get from birds and pass to people, said David Brown, general manager of the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District.
``You could literally have one home infecting an entire neighborhood,'' Brown said. One pool may produce tens of thousands of mosquitoes, he said. California health officials predict a record outbreak of West Nile virus this year, as hot weather arrived sooner than usual and mosquitoes began breeding earlier.
Real-estate agents are being drafted to help combat the spread of the sometimes fatal virus. Health officials asked agents to report vacant residences with standing water, in what the National Association of Realtors says is an effort unique to the Sacramento area.
``We have a big role to play,'' said Stan Read of Keller Williams Realty in Roseville. ``It makes total sense to me because we are involved in so many properties.''
Reports Roll In
More than 1,000 homes have been reported since the program began in May, Brown said. The average time a single-family home sits on the market in Sacramento was 52 days at the end of June, according to the Sacramento Association of Realtors. The selling time tripled in the past three years.
``If it's a home that's in that transition phase, nobody is really looking out after it except the realtor,'' Brown said. ``We have found them to be a very valuable tool in letting us know where those conditions exist.''
California hasn't escaped the nation's real-estate slump as buyers become more cautious. The National Association of Realtors yesterday projected that existing home sales will fall 6.8 percent this year and that single-family housing starts in 2008 will fall 29 percent from 2006.
Sacramento was the third-riskiest housing market in the U.S. after Miami and Orlando, Florida, Forbes Magazine reported in July. The magazine noted the area's 3.3 percent vacancy rate and its share of adjustable-rate mortgages, which constitute more than half of all home loans. In comparison, nearby San Francisco has a vacancy rate of 2.4 percent and Chicago's rate is 2.3 percent.
The estimate of 9,000 vacant homes in Sacramento and Yolo counties comes from numbers provided by the realtor associations in both counties, as of Aug. 1. About 1,200 of the empty houses are known to have swimming pools, said Greg Vlasek, director of government relations for the Sacramento Association of Realtors.
``You have people who may have relocated to another region or moved on to another home and still haven't been able to sell the first home, and they aren't paying to maintain the pool in the meantime,'' he said.
The Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District each day dispatches technicians to the identified properties to treat stagnant water with a chemical larvicide or with tiny fish that eat mosquito larvae. Only female mosquitoes bite humans as they seek blood to produce eggs.
The department also has 10 flocks of so-called sentinel chickens. The fowl are deployed in coops, cages and pens on state and county property and some private land as an early warning system. Each flock has 10 chickens.
West Nile virus emerged in the U.S. in 1999, in an outbreak traced to birds at the Bronx Zoo. Since then, the illness has spread across the U.S. and north into Canada.
Virus Is Present
The first bird in Sacramento County to test positive for West Nile virus was confirmed June 12. The virus has been reported in 42 of California's 58 counties and has been linked to five deaths in the state so far this year, according to the Department of Public Health.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Kern, Colusa and San Joaquin counties because of West Nile virus. The declaration will free up grant money for local vector- control districts.
More than 4,200 Americans were infected with West Nile virus in the U.S. last year, and 177 died of the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Forty-three cases were confirmed in Sacramento and Yolo counties in 2006.
About 20 percent of people with West Nile Virus will develop a fever, headache and body soreness, according to the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
One in 150 develops a severe illness that can include disorientation, tremors and coma, with possibly permanent nerve damage. Of that group, half struggle with symptoms, including fatigue, tremors and depression, more than a year later.
Federal scientists are warning that the U.S. could face an unprecedented West Nile epidemic this summer, Schwarzenegger said at a press conference last week.
``So when there is a swimming pool of a house that has been left behind or something and that hasn't been drained, we want to encourage everyone to get rid of the standing water,'' he said.