ORLANDO -- Washington may be consumed these days with tracking who's in and who's out in budget politics. But we in Florida are concerned with a far graver issue. We are tracking deadly mosquitoes.
These pests are swarming across the sunshine state. Their relentless advance began a month ago just south of the Panhandle and now threatens Fort Lauderdale.
A small percentage of them carry St. Louis encephalitis, an infection of the brain that, on rare occasions, can be fatal. State health officials have advised Floridians that, of every 1,000 mosquitoes buzzing overhead, four are the type that carry the virus. Of those four, less than 1 percent are actual carriers.
But since we can't tell one mosquito from another, we're afraid of them all. Newspapers are full of stories about "bloodsucking" and "bloodthirsty" mosquitoes, that are "ripping" across the state, "cavorting" in public parks. We are advised to stay indoors at night because the dreaded mosquitoes "like to hunt for blood from dusk to dawn." These are insects, not vampires, but the Big Scare is on.
This may seem an unusual reaction in a state that once was almost entirely a mosquito-infested swamp. In fact, before Florida was developed, when it was still mostly bogs and marshes, mosquitoes were so thick that cows choked and suffocated on them.
But Floridians take their pests seriously. At home, my husband and I have discovered nothing more serious than a few cockroaches and harmless, although disgustingly large, palmetto bugs. But the landlord sends the bug man every month to cover the inside of the house with a foggy chemical so potent that he advised keeping the cat outdoors for a day.
Every county has its Mosquito Control District, and spray trucks are working overtime in the neighborhoods.
Although the chance of being killed in evening rush-hour traffic is greater, the mosquito threat has disrupted autumn as if a red alert had been declared. Boy Scouts are canceling camping trips. School teachers are postponing field trips. From the gulf coast to the Atlantic, Floridians are staying indoors at night to avoid the mosquito's chomp.
In Orlando, Disney World's evening activities at man-made Fort Wilderness have come to a halt. Disney closes its hotel swimming pools at dusk and hands out information sheets advising visitors to take precautions.
Even high-school football games across the state are being rescheduled for the unusual hour of 4 p.m. to avoid the nighttime raiders.
At Vero Beach, the biggest game of the year, homecoming, was played on a recent Friday afternoon, and Coach Billy Livings wasn't happy about it. "I've been blown out of many a Friday night game," he complained before the kickoff, "but never by a mosquito."
Not that there isn't a threat. So far, 36 cases of St. Louis encephalitis have been diagnosed in 15 counties, and health officials said the number will grow before the mosquitoes die as temperatures dip. The last serious epidemic of mosquito-spread encephalitis occurred 13 years ago when 110 persons were infected and eight died.
Last week, a soccer game at West Palm Beach started only after the fields were sprayed. At Disney World, the odor of insecticide wafted over the Seven Seas Lagoon as the sun set on another day's crowd. A spokesman there observed that Disney World has so much concrete that mosquitoes aren't much of a threat.
At Epcot Center, Al and Cathy Pleau herded their three children toward the front gate as darkness fell. The Pleaus flew down from Greenville, R.I., on vacation and heard about the mosquitoes when they checked into their hotel. They hadn't seen any yet. But they weren't taking chances and were heading indoors.
Across town, Chris Carl, a hotel clerk, considered his options and shrugged. He doesn't hold much hope for successfully avoiding mosquitoes in his home state.
"I live here. I'm covered with mosquito bites," he said with exasperation. "If I worried every time I got bit, I'd be a nervous wreck."