08/15/2016 12:53 EDT | Updated 08/15/2016 12:59 EDT

What's The Best Way To Deal With West Nile Virus?

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Mosquito sucking blood, little insect on skin

There are many welcome hallmarks to summer, such as the longer days and pleasant temperatures. Yet, summer also brings unwanted risks like damaging storms, oppressive heat waves, forest fires, and drought. One of the least favoured recurrences is the rise in mosquito populations and the potential for West Nile Virus infection.

This year, thankfully, the virus hasn't made much of an impact. Most areas of the country have found low numbers of the virus -- if at all -- suggesting this will be a quiet season. Yet, as Canadians have seen in the past, the virus is unpredictable and may surge causing hundreds to thousands of infections.

The virus is for the most part spread by mosquitoes meaning controlling infection during the bad years may be quite difficult. The recent news about a similar virus, Zika, has revealed the troubles public health officials face when an outbreak or epidemic occurs. There are options, yet they are not invisible in nature, meaning actions involve the public either directly or indirectly. They may also be expensive, putting pressure on government coffers. When this occurs, the potential for backlash or refusals to comply arises.

When faced with the risk of public outcry, officials need to develop a plan to best identify which measures are appropriate in light of the situation. After all, the identification of one mosquito carrying the virus shouldn't necessarily lead to widespread insecticide use. In the same vein, asking people to take mosquito-based precautions, such as long clothing and dumping standing water might be seen as overbearing. To be sure everyone remains committed to the same goal a measured response needs to be in place.

For a group of researchers in Quebec, figuring out exactly how to achieve this type of all-inclusive management has been a priority for years. Now, after years of study, they have developed a method to better understand the impact of various interventions and how they may be perceived in the public.

The team used a concept known as Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA), which involved gaining insight from people representing different professional sectors. There were fifteen people in the group with varied backgrounds including the Canadian and Quebec governments, environmental groups, university researchers, and corporate members, particularly those responsible for mosquito control. This enabled a more broad understanding of the impact of interventions and, more importantly, the risk for any type of backlash.

The concept of using long-term preventative measures, such as vaccination, may be met with resistance.

Once the group was chosen, the interventions were evaluated based on five different criteria. Public health, operational and economic effects were at the top of the list but the other two focused on the public perspective. The social impact of any intervention was given significant weight as was the combination of animal welfare and environmental sustainability. These latter two took into consideration how an intervention may be perceived.

When the results came back, the most interesting observation was the lack of any significant improvement to public health regardless of the intervention. There was simply no method to ensure the public would be perfectly safe. This shouldn't be a surprise in light of the Zika issue currently happening in other areas of the Americas. Mosquito-borne infections are impossible to control.

But when the other criteria were taken into consideration, some of the interventions appeared to be more beneficial than others. The most effective was to recommend the use of long, light-coloured clothing and ensuring window screens are intact. As to interventions leading to possible backlash and negative effects, alternative technologies, such as automatic insecticide dispensers and human vaccination were at the top.

The results of the study reveal two significant aspects to the West Nile Virus picture. For the most part, the best reception to control measures occurs when the individual is included. However, in times of crisis, government-led intervention may be allowed. However, this will only be accepted over a short term. The concept of using long-term preventative measures, such as vaccination, may be met with resistance.

As for what this means for Canadians, this study reveals how quiet years such as this one require a very calm approach to the virus. The risk is low and for the most part, infection can be prevented by keeping an eye on those window screens and keeping the long clothing close during prime bite times. But, if ever this virus once again starts to become a real public health threat, you will most likely see a greater presence of mosquito prevention although it will be measured and always take your perspective into account.

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