Why would a Californian drought trigger an outbreak of mosquito-borne disease?

CalifornianBushfireSunset_DawnEllnerMosquitoes need water almost as much as they need blood so why is it a drought could cause an outbreak of mosquito-borne disease? Why does the drought in California mean less water but more mosquito-borne disease?

More than just water

All mosquitoes need water. It could be a teaspoon of water in a pot plant base or an expanse of wetlands inundated by tides. Following flooding, health authorities are typically quick to issue public health warnings about increased risk of mosquito-borne disease. However, more mosquitoes doesn’t always mean more mosquito-borne disease.

Mosquitoes need blood. As well as biting people, they also bite animals. Outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease typically requires the presence of wildlife, animals that act as reservoirs for the disease-causing viruses.


Drought is hitting California hard (Source EPA via Huffington Post)

Mosquitoes, drought and West Nile virus

West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne pathogen generally spread between birds and people by mosquitoes. Culex mosquitoes they appear to play the most important role in West Nile virus transmission in urban environments, particularly Culex pipiens.

These mosquitoes are generally not breeding in wetlands. They’re found in artificial structures ranging from backyard containers and neglected swimming pools to stormwater pipes and drains. These mosquitoes have moved out of the swamps and into the suburbs! They’ve also moved into the constructed wetlands popping up throughout the suburbs too.

Rather than water birds associated with wetland environments, the birds playing a key role in West Nile virus transmission are small songbirds common in urban areas. These birds roost in large numbers and are the target the the Culex mosquitoes that preferentially feed on birds. It is important to keep in mind that there is still a lot of learn about how the roosting behaviour of birds influences their exposure to West Nile virus.

During “dry” conditions, bird populations are concentrated in urban areas (where humans provide water and food) and mosquito populations associated with urban water-holding structures increase. During “wet” summers, bird populations may be more widely dispersed through the environment with many birds roosting and foraging well away from residential areas and reducing the contact between birds, mosquitoes and people. When the “dry” summers arrive, birds move back close to the people. People who provide water.


The Culex pipiens group of mosquitoes play an important role in the transmission of West Nile virus and are closely associated with urban environments. They like biting birds. (Photo: Stephen Doggett, NSW Health Pathology)

In the absence of rain, water stagnates in stormwater pipes and drains providing favourable conditions for mosquitoes. During “wet” summers, the mosquitoes are flushed out by increased water flows and, even if they don’t, permanent habitats are more likely to support populations of mosquito predators such as fish.

During “dry” summers, people also start storing water around the home. Once water restrictions kick in, the desire to keep the garden looking healthy can potentially pose an indirect health risk to the homeowner as they hoard water around the home that provides habitat for mosquitoes.

In short, dry conditions help concentrate mosquitoes and birds in close proximity to people and increase the risk of mosquito-borne disease outbreaks.


Mosquito control in Texas in response to an outbreak of West Nile virus raised much concern within the community. It can sometimes be difficult to balance the need for mosquito control with community engagement to allay fears of insecticide -based human health risks (Source: CDC)

An outbreak in Texas in 2012

West Nile virus was first introduced into North America in 1999. Despite rapidly spreading across the continent in the subsequent years, the numbers of outbreaks steadily declined and, to some extent, it fell of the radar as a serious public health concern. There was a resurgence of the disease in 2012 with an outbreak primarily focused in Texas.

There was a substantial increase in the number of cases compared to previous years with an unusually warm spring thought to have played an important role in driving the outbreak. Health authorities were warned that outbreaks of this nature may continue.

USDroughtMonitors_7April2015West Nile virus and the Californian drought

For the past couple of years, California has been hit with one of its worst droughts in decades. It is having widespread impacts and may also be increasing mosquito-borne disease. Californian authorities have been battling potential public health risks associated with mosquitoes on many fronts. There were record numbers of deaths due to West Nile virus disease in 2014 and exotic mosquitoes were detected. This included an Australian mosquito that was found in Los Angeles.

It is relatively early in California’s mosquito season but West Nile virus has already been detected. Health authorities are warning that another bad year for West Nile virus activity could be ahead despite the ongoing drought. There is already a suggestion that the severity of the current drought may be exacerbated by climate change and that climate change may be playing a role in future West Nile virus risk internationally.

There is little doubt that prolonged drought will impact Californian residents in many ways and an increased risk of mosquito-borne disease is just one of them. Fortunately, mosquito and vector control agencies in California work closely with local health authorities to monitoring mosquito and pathogen activity to provide warnings of increased risk. However, there is responsibility for everyone to ensure that the ways in which water is conserved around the home doesn’t increase the risks associated with mosquitoes.


If you’re worried about keeping your pot plants well watered but don’t want to provide a home for mosquitoes, fill the saucer with sand. It will keep the moisture in place but there is no “free water” for mozzies to use!

If you’re not able to “dump and drain” water holding containers, make sure that they’re covered to stop mosquitoes getting in or out. If you’ve got a swimming pool that’s neglected, start chlorinating it or release fish to eat through any mosquitoes. There are also a few mosquito control products that could be used, the most appropriate would probably be the insect growth regulator methoprene, it will stop mosquitoes emerging from the water holding container.

Why not share your tips on saving water around the home while not increasing opportunities for mosquitoes on Twitter?

The photo at the top of this post is taken by Dawn Ellner (see original photo here)