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West Nile virus spreads

The wet weather across the country is producing crops of mosquitoes – carriers of the West Nile Virus.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | May 14, 2005


"Although West Nile Virus can be fairly mild in that most people don’t have symptoms, it can also have some pretty serious consequences."

—Christine Pearson


The wet weather across the country is producing crops of mosquitoes – carriers of the West Nile Virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), positive tests for West Nile Virus in dead birds have been reported in three states:  Pennsylvania, Louisiana and California.  No human cases have been reported yet. 

Predicting just how bad a season can be is nearly impossible, though. 

“We get a lot of questions about predictions,” said Christine Pearson, spokesperson for the CDC.  “But unfortunately from what we’ve seen since it arrived here in 1999, it’s difficult to make predictions.  Each year is different.

“We expect activity this year in every place it’s been so far – and there’s also a small possibility of expansion as well.”

Pearson said last year the virus spread to areas of the U.S. that had not experienced widespread problems from it before – including the West Coast.  Health officials reported more than 2,400 human cases to the CDC in 2004, with 88 deaths.  Those especially prone to the illness include the elderly, children, and those with weakened immune systems.

Pearson said the public is fairly good at realizing the importance of preparedness for the mosquito season, but not always at realizing the severity of the virus.

“Although West Nile Virus can be fairly mild in that most people don’t have symptoms, it can also have some pretty serious consequences,” she said.  “You’re much better to go ahead and take some steps to prepare yourself.”

Health officials in California are getting the public ready for another busy season.  So far this year, 62 birds from 20 counties have tested positive for the West Nile Virus. 

“We are definitely prepared to have a worse year than last year,” said Norma Arceo, spokesperson for the California Department of Health Services.  “Southern California was hit hard last year and we expect it to spread to the northern part of the state this year.”

California had the 23 deaths from the virus last year, the highest in the nation.  Arceo said any deaths are tragic, but noted that public awareness campaigns helped keep that number from being higher.

“It could have been more serious than it was, but people took precautions,” she said.  “They believe it’s a serious illness.  As we move along we feel people are more educated.  So far we’ve been fortunate to not have a human case yet this season, and this could be a result of people being prepared.” 

Arceo and Pearson agreed that the ways to avoid the illness are simple.  Removing standing water and wearing insect repellent are two of the main ways to avoid West Nile Virus.

The CDC recently revealed an updated list of useful repellents, noting that the chemicals DEET and Picaridin are very effective at repelling mosquitoes.  The agency also added that oil of lemon eucalyptus – a plant-based repellent – also yields positive results.

“If you’re going to be outside, take some precautions,” explained Pearson.  “Wear repellent or long-sleeved shirts and pants.  If you’re a golfer or a gardener, put a can of repellent next to your clubs or tools so it’s right there to remind you.”

Officials also encourage the public to report dead birds to local and state health departments for testing as well.

Several biotechnology companies are currently working on prospective West Nile Virus vaccines right now with the help of grants from the National Institutes of Health, but most are still only in the testing stages.  Some show promise, but national health officials say it is still too early to count on that possibility for this season.

Until then, health agencies are spreading the word to make sure the public is prepared.  “(West Nile Virus) is something people may not have at the top of their minds,” Pearson said.  “They need to be reminded of the easy things they can do to protect themselves.”


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More links on Disease

 

Related Links:

Centers for Disease Control West Nile Virus information

U.S. Geological Survey West Nile maps

California's West Nile Virus Web site

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