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Vector Control: Protecting Ourselves from the Threats of a Tourism-Based Economy

Vector Control Worker positions with UPW, eliminated under former Governor Linda Lingle's administration, have been restaffed since the Dengue Fever Outbreak on the Big Island. Kekoa Pasion-Alameida and James Kapu-Kaaihue are on the job, working to protect Hawaii's Communities. According to a recent press release to inform us of the progress made on the Big Island, the Governor’s Office says, “Dengue is not endemic to Hawaii, but is intermittently imported from endemic areas by infected travelers.”

“When the first flu-like symptoms surfaced on the overnight bus journey from Hanoi, I dismissed it as a minor bug of a kind I’d had countless times before while traveling overseas. Only around 6 o’clock that fateful evening, after vomiting for the 10th time in less than an hour, did I begin to fear that I was seriously unwell.

That worry turned into bug-eyed panic when the violent nausea gave way to physical agony. Suddenly all of my extremities — fingers, toes, nose — began to tingle, and an excruciating pain shot through my limbs. The pain progressed inward, leaving behind digits that I could no longer feel, as though I were being dipped in a paralyzing liquid with a film of excoriating acid on its surface.

It was this physiological curiosity, what I’d later discover was a particularly aggressive “rigor”—the exaggerated shaking and cramps that attend serious fever—that propelled me onto the floor outside my room, where an Australian couple found me whimpering in the hall. I don’t remember much between that and the hospital corridor. A taxi, a race to the hospital, another collapse before I could make it through the door—all was fog and ferment.”

(Wismayer, November 2015)

 

Thankfully, most of us will never experience the excruciating pain travel writer Henry Wismayer describes when recounting his 2015 trip to Vietnam. Still, considering our islands’ tourism-based economy and the high number of visitors potentially introducing diseases that are not native to our islands, we are at greater risk than most other parts of the western world. The Department of Health (DOH) recognizes this fact through their many activities to mitigate the potential for disease outbreak. With concern surrounding the introduction of Zika, Chikungunya and Dengue, the efforts made by the DOH Vector Control Unit to monitor mosquito activity are critical to our health and safety.

Hosting us on a “day in the life” of a Vector Control Worker are UPW Members James Kapu-Kaaihue and Kekoa Pasion-Alameida. Readying

their equipment, they show us to their truck and tell us they start each day by driving to specific sites to collect and set up mosquito traps that will tell them what species are inhabiting these areas and give them an indication of the potential arboviruses, or insect borne (particularly mosiquito borne) diseases, within our community.

Vector Control Workers were completely eliminated in personnel cuts under
former Governor Linda Lingle. Kekoa says he hasn’t been with the Unit as long
as James, who has been there for about six months. There are apparently
4 Vector Control Workers on the Island of Oahu. On the Big Island,
the situation is dismal, with no Vector Control Workers and a Dengue Fever Outbreak
on their hands. James (checking a Light Trap on the left) says he was sent there
to help when the outbreak took hold.


“We concentrate on ports of entry,” says Kekoa. It makes sense. Our first stop, Diamond Head Crater, is crawling with tourists. The Crater is also a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. The air is warm, and rainwater tends to collect there and become stagnant in an area just off the beaten path.

Climbing from the truck out onto the dusty, dry brush, we are greeted by that fateful and still, hot air—promising a jackpot for mosquito breeding. James and Kekoa unload their first trap and assemble it by pouring a special water mix that attracts mosquitoes into the base, covering the top with a mosquito net to keep mosquitoes from escaping once trapped. We make three more stops at Aiea Library, Sand Island State Park, and Anuenue Fisheries—just down the road from the park.

Kekoa and James work in tandem, and they work quickly to set this Gravid Trap.
The quicker they set the traps, the quicker they will be able to collect mosquito specimens.


The daily routine held steady by James and Kekoa protects us from the horror of mosquito-borne illnesses. Their collection samples provide concrete evidence of the types of mosquitoes inhabiting our islands, and ensure that we will not be victims of life-threatening diseases that other tropical locations around the world are held prey to. Vector Control Workers help keep this threat to a minimum. Unfortunately, even with James and Kekoa hard at work, our lives could still include the nightmare  of a mosquito bite—much more than just a common nuisance.

Walking into the Vector Control Office, it’s clear they take their job seriously, educating all who visit on how to “Fight the Bite”. As the posters on the walls of the Vector Control Unit forewarn, we must take precautions to prevent ourselves from coming in contact with these terrible illnesses that can easily be introduced into our ecosystem (especially considering our tourism-based economy and unusually high number of resulting visitors we receive on an annual basis). Filled with a myriad of unknown devices all for the sake of testing mosquitoes, desk space is covered with mosquito samples labeled by the origin they were collected.

According to a recent press release to inform us of the progress made on
the Big Island, the Governor’s Office says, “Dengue is not endemic to Hawaii,
but is intermittently imported from endemic areas by infected travelers.”

It seems, at every turn, we are discovering just a little more about what the Price of Paradise really means. Hopefully, the next time you begin to hear that ominous high-pitched buzzing in your ear, you can take comfort in knowing that UPW members and the Vector Control team are working diligently to ensure it results in nothing more than an itchy bite. Thanks to them, we can rest a bit easier and maybe even enjoy the evening sunset as it falls below the horizon out on the ocean—the beautiful colors giving way to the warm embrace of an island night.

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