Water gathering plants get yanked as Health Department finds another dengue mosquito
In February of last year, the state spent $319,000 to install bromeliads in concrete planters along the H1 Airport Viaduct. Just 17 months later, the Hawaii Department of Transportation is pulling the plants after a request from the Department of Health.
"It is unfortunate that it has to be taken out, but I think that public health and safety is a priority at this point," said HDOT spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter.
The drastic move comes after a mosquito known to carry dengue fever was found at Honolulu International Airport the week of July 1. It's the fifth Aedes aegypti mosquito found at the airport since March 5, 2012. Prior to that, the last time the mosquito was found on Oahu was 1949.
"It's just about the worst-case scenario to have a dengue fever mosquito at an airport, because it has the potential of spreading the disease far and wide to anybody who's coming through," said Deputy Health Director Gary Gill.
Because of their shape, bromeliads naturally collect rain or irrigation water that can remain in place for days or even weeks. The plants are the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, which only need two teaspoons of water to lay their eggs.
Gill says the industrial area around the airport and the H1 Freeway act as natural barriers against the spread of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which typically travel no more than 1,500 feet during their lifetime. However, the bromeliads along the Airport Viaduct were a major concern for health officials.
"We don't want to leave that trail of bread crumbs, or that long line of little water cups in bromeliads that could induce the mosquito to leave the airport and migrate and spread, and start to breed in town," explained Gill.
The cost of removing the bromeliads isn't nearly as costly as their installation. Sluyter told KITV4 the plants were priced at $48,000 and removing them will add another $12,000 to the bill. However, sprinklers that were installed along with the plants will remain.
"We don't have funding right now to immediately replace them, but we are looking in the future to replace it with either plants or possibly a rock garden," said Sluyter.
Of more immediate concern to Gill is whether the Aedes aegypti mosquito is spreading beyond Oahu. The Health Department has been setting mosquito traps at Honolulu International Airport for decades, but lacks the funds and staffing to do the same type of trapping on the neighbor islands.
"We are not testing other points of entry," said Gill. "We're not testing harbors, we're not testing airports throughout the state; we simply don't have the staff to do so."
After the onset of the Great Recession in late 2008, the Health Department laid off 40 vector control workers under former Gov. Linda Lingle. During the past legislative session, state lawmakers restored funding to four positions, but DOH had requested funding for eight vector control personnel.
"So, we're trying to take small steps to rebuild our capacity to prevent the spread of these kinds of mosquitoes and other vector threats," said Gill.
The Health Department is asking businesses and residents to survey their properties and drain any standing water where mosquitoes may breed. Gill said there have been no recent cases of dengue fever in Hawaii, but he wouldn't be surprised if someone on Oahu or the neighbor islands came down with the disease.
"People visit Hawaii from other places, (and) our local folks go on vacation and come back," said Gill. "That's basically how the dengue fever disease is brought back to Hawaii."
Dengue fever is also known as "breakbone fever" because of the severe aches and pains that afflict those who contract it. Gill says anyone with symptoms should immediately contact their doctor. However, the disease cannot be spread from person to person, only from mosquito to person.
"You can get chills and really severe body aches and headaches, so it's something we don't want to have here if we can avoid it," he said.
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