Aug. 19, 2011— -- Houston is suffering through its worst drought in decades, and the misery is being compounded by a plague of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, infestations of fleas, and a cascade of bursting water pipes that are spilling the city's precious water supply.
Most worrisome for the city is the sudden surge in the number of mosquitoes carrying West Nile.
"This summer we had an incredibly dry, very hot summer and so that will do nothing but increase the positive number of mosquitoes," said Kristy Murray, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, who has studied the West Nile virus for nine years.
More than three times the number of mosquitoes as last year have tested positive for West Nile virus, according to Dr. Rudy Bueno of the Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services Mosquito Control division.
With so little water and such high temperatures, mosquitoes and birds are coming into more frequent contact as they seek out the same limited water sources. The birds, which carry West Nile, transmit the virus to the mosquitoes when the birds are bitten, Murray said.
So far only four cases of West Nile have been reported in humans this year, but Murray said she expects even more cases in her state.
"Usually 80 percent of cases occur in August and September in humans," she said, adding that people sometimes don't show symptoms right away.
West Nile Virus causes inflammation of the brain and meningitis and can be fatal.
Joe Conlon, technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association, said he encourages people to check for depressions on their property that may hold water.
"I've seen mosquitoes breeding in everything from air conditioner drip pans to ditches to wood piles," he said.
"This year is going to be a wake up call for people," Conlon said.
For some reason the drought and heat wave has increased the activity of fleas in Houston.
Murray said her dogs have fleas, something that can be attributed to the climate.
"I have been using every flea product on my dogs, from oral to topical, and they still have them," she said. "Fleas have never been a problem for my dogs before."
Murray said she had heard similar stories from neighbors, who have had to treat their pets for infestations for the first time.
Just as Houston is trying to preserve its dwindling supply of water, its system of water pipes are bursting at a rate of 700 a day, up from the usual rate of 200 a day at this time of year.
"There is no end in sight to that," Mayor Annise Parker said of the water main leaks at a press conference this week. "We are running every crew we have, using overtime, working weekends."
The heat wave has dried out the ground so much that the soil is shrinking, leaving gaps around the pipes. At times, the pipes sag and crack. At other times, the increased use of water bursts through older, worn out pipes at a spot where the soil has fallen away the from pipes.
With so much water spilling into streets, the city is having trouble maintaining water pressure and instituted water rationing this week.