SAVANNAH — Mosquitoes that can carry the Zika virus are found in all corners of Georgia — from coastal marshes to northern mountains, in rural farm communities and crowded suburbs. Yet many of those places employ no one to fight them.
That could be a problem if Zika breaks out where taxpayer-funded mosquito control doesn't exist. Agencies dedicated to surveillance and spraying of mosquitoes aren't nearly as widespread in Georgia as the bugs themselves.
An Associated Press survey of district offices of the Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed at least 56 counties statewide provide no mosquito control services. That's more than one-third of Georgia's 159 counties.
The gaps in Georgia's mosquito-control net aren't unique. They can be found in most other states, which typically relegate organization and funding of mosquito programs to cities and counties. The result is a patchwork of services — and holes where none exist.
Georgia is considered a high-risk state for Zika, and 25 cases have been confirmed here. In most people the virus causes only a mild illness at worst, but it's been linked to severe birth defects in babies born to women infected during pregnancy.
Though all U.S. infections so far have been traced to travel outside the country, health officials fear cases of local transmission by mosquitoes could be imminent. And many places lack mosquito control agencies to respond.
"We look pitiful here in Georgia," said Jeffrey Heusel, mosquito control director for Chatham County and president of the Georgia Mosquito Control Association, which similarly identified 56 counties without service back in 2009. "One problem is there are so many counties. There are so many little fiefdoms."
Mosquito control programs can come and go at such a rate that nobody really knows how many exist in the U.S., said Joe Conlon, technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association. For example, some Georgia communities added programs after West Nile virus emerged as a threat in 1999, then pulled the plug years later during the economic recession.
"The places that don't have gaps like that are California, Florida and New Jersey," Conlon said. "Other than that, it's exactly the way it is in Georgia. Most of the larger cities have mosquito control. But, by and large, it's a hit-and-miss operation."
Localized mosquito control means services vary widely, especially in Georgia, which has more counties than any state except Texas.
Coastal Chatham County shells out $3.8 million a year, more than any other Georgia county, for a mosquito control agency that employs 30 people and has an airplane and three helicopters. Athens-Clarke County, 200 miles inland, has no dedicated mosquito control budget. Instead it focuses on educating residents to eliminate breeding sites around homes and, as needed, deploys drainage workers to treat standing water on county property with larvacide.
Communities where mosquitoes aren't a big nuisance have typically gotten by with little or no tax-funded mosquito control, said Elmer Gray, a University of Georgia entomologist.
Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species tied to Zika outbreaks in Latin America, isn't common in Georgia. But the Asian tiger mosquito, which also can carry the Zika virus, is found statewide. Both species breed near homes in water left standing in flower pots and dog bowls, even bottle caps.
"It is a concern," Gray said. "Mosquito control has been a low priority for counties. Everybody is strapped for money."
Meanwhile, Georgia state agencies have few resources to battle mosquitoes. The state Department of Public Health recently hired five "vector surveillance coordinators" to perform public outreach and monitor mosquito populations in multi-county regions considered at highest risk for Zika.
Otherwise, the state agency has "limited geographic mosquito surveillance and virtually no emergency vector control capabilities," its commissioner, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, said in a May 24 letter to Georgia congressmen. Fitzgerald's department is seeking an estimated $2.5 million in federal funding to help fight Zika.
At the center of the state's anti-Zika campaign is an effort to persuade citizens to protect themselves — primarily by dumping any water pooled in buckets, kiddie pools, planters and tarps after it rains.
"It's important that people do have to look to their own yards and look to their own neighborhoods and not think they're powerless," said Rosmarie Kelly, a public health entomologist for the state Public Health department.
Kelly said most Georgia counties without mosquito control agencies are rural communities where people are spread out — making spraying expensive and often ineffective. She said Zika outbreaks would most likely occur in densely populated areas, and even then would probably result in just a handful of cases.
Gaps in the mosquito-control net aren't all rural. Gwinnett County in metro Atlanta is Georgia's second most populous county, with more than 805,000 residents. Workers sometimes apply larvacide to reduce mosquitoes in public parks, but otherwise the county has no mosquito control program. Gwinnett County spokesman Joe Sorenson said there are no plans to add services because of Zika.
"Right now everything I'm seeing from the state is promoting personal responsibility and tip-and-toss," Sorenson said. "If we see something different, we'll look into it."
Even with a robust mosquito control program, the species that carry Zika are difficult to eradicate with spraying because they breed close to homes.
That hasn't stopped Chatham County's mosquito control department from trying to reduce Zika risks. Heusel said his staff uses surveillance traps to monitor Asian tiger mosquito populations and randomly sends captured bugs to a lab for Zika screenings.
When local health officials alerted Heusel's agency to two potential Zika infections in the Savannah area recently, they gave his staff a general area to canvass for breeding sites and to collect mosquitoes for testing.
That's not happening in many parts of Georgia, where residents must fend for themselves.
"People need to be diligent," said Gray, the UGA entomologist. "The government's not going to save us on this one."