He admits he’s not crazy about ticks. But Dave Geske otherwise thoroughly enjoys seeking out the biting little bloodsuckers most people desperately want to avoid.
“The wonderful thing about this job is when everyone wants to be outside, I get to be,” he said.
Vector control manager for La Crosse and 11 other counties plus the Ho-Chunk Nation, Geske has made a career tracking the crawling and flying agents that can carry disease and death.
It’s a matter of figuring out how to break the chain that can take viruses such as West Nile and La Crosse encephalitis from multi-legged host to humans.
“I find it so captivating. I find it so much fun,” said Geske, who not surprisingly is an avid fan of British mystery novels.
Geske also saw, almost 36 years ago, the worst of what can happen when insect and virus and child collide.
Of bugs and viruses
When young, Geske told his dad he wanted to be a baseball player, scientist or an eastern woodlands Indian. Knowing his athletic ability, Dad advised he pursue science and “just enjoy baseball.”
Geske grew up in the Galesville area, graduating in the final Gale-Ettrick class before Trempealeau joined the district.
He didn’t expect to return to the region after finishing graduate studies in vector ecology at the University of South Carolina. He had interviewed in Cleveland when he heard about the La Crosse opening.
The Ohio job probably would have paid twice as much but was, after all, in Cleveland, Geske noted.
Coming back to La Crosse let him work with Dr. Cameron Gundersen, who helped isolate the La Crosse encephalitis virus in the 1960s, and Gary Gilmore, professor and director of graduate community health programs at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“It was good science here,” Geske said. “The science was just really stimulating.”
His first year in La Crosse saw an unprecedented 50 cases of encephalitis — and the last area death from the disease.
Dawn Lyn Torgerson of rural De Soto was only 3 when stricken. Her decline in July 1978 triggered what grew into the current vector control efforts. Her parents allowed a video to be made of their daughter as her condition worsened; still used in training, even now, “it really is difficult to see,” Geske said.
“To lose her, see the effects on her family ... it was just devastating,” Geske said. Though she would be 38 today, “in my mind, she’ll always be that little girl.”
A matter of education
When Torgerson died, La Crosse County officials already were finalizing a mosquito control program that would focus on spraying and eliminating breeding areas.
That eventually expanded to include Monroe, Vernon, Crawford, Lafayette, Trempealeau, Jackson, Pierce, St. Croix and Dunn counties in Wisconsin and Houston and Winona counties in Minnesota.
The key would be getting the public engaged and educated about the Aedes triseriatus mosquito that can carry encephalitis, Geske said.
This “treehole” breeding species normally doesn’t travel far from where it hatches, Geske said, so people needed to remove anything outside that could hold even small amounts of water to avoid creating mosquito incubators in their backyard.
Since that effort began in the late 1970s, the annual average of 27 encephalitis cases in the region has dropped to four or five, Geske said.
“We have trained people to be more aware,” he said.
Doug Mormann, La Crosse County health department director, credits Geske’s low-key style for informing the public without alarming them.
“It’s a tough balance between having people be aware, take the steps to protect themselves ... but at the same time, not to be afraid to utilize the wonderful environment that we have,” Mormann said.
“What he’s doing does not have to be complicated, and he’s been really successful at it.”
In his almost 36 years, Geske also has watched vector control move away from widescale pesticide applications that put beneficial species at risk toward more targeted treatments that enlist biological agents, such as bacteria.
But time also seems to have fostered complacency, as government and the public see these diseases as treatable and give less thought to prevention, Geske said.
Yet as the advent of West Nile shows, climate change and invasive species mean the region must remain on guard, Geske said. Changing bird migration patterns have him nervous avian flu could surface soon.
‘Still so stimulating’
Now 60, Geske has watched several health department colleagues decide to retire.
His two grown daughters have given him four grandchildren: three boys and a 5-year-old “spider girl” who seems to share his fascination with insects and arachnids. She’ll warn Geske to avoid stepping on the ants she sees scurrying across the sidewalks.
It’s tempting to think about spending more time with the grandchildren, Geske admitted.
But he’s not ready to give up the watch. He still finds energy from the regular influx of students who work in the department each year.
“They’re brilliant kids,” Geske said. “They could replace me in a second.”
“It’s still so stimulating for me.”
And he still thinks of Dawn Lyn Torgerson, how she represents the main motivation for getting out among the biting little bloodsuckers.
“That you can stop people,” he said, “from going through what that girl went through.”