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States prepare for West Nile Virus

BY HEATHER MOYER | BOSTON | July 24, 2001

As the summer progresses, more instances of

West Nile Virus are appearing. Since this spring, the virus has been

discovered in birds from Florida up to Massachusetts, where the first

two confirmed cases were found in crows just last week.

The second human case was reported in southern Florida in early August and states across the US have prepared

response plans and are working to keep the public calm, with many

public officials saying these discoveries are no cause for human

alarm.

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, while not having any dead birds

positively tested for the virus yet, has prepared a 12-page response

plan that is available on its website. The City's website is also an

information center, with daily updates on any virus findings, a

Frequently-Asked-Questions page, and the opportunity to sign up for a

listserv that will send any updates to one's email address.

According to Cambridge's 2001 Response Plan, this year's response

plan stemmed from last year's confusion on how to handle the

situation. Many municipalities around the Boston area decided to

take last year's experiences and use them as a guide for designing

this year's response plan. Last year many Cambridge residents

complained of the lack of public involvement in deciding how to

handle the virus prevention, with the biggest controversy-causer

being the city's decision to spray pesticide throughout the

neighborhoods.

"I thought that the effects from the chemicals could be worse than

the effects of the West Nile Virus," said Cambridge resident Meg

Gray. "The whole process of them doing it seemed secretive, to find

out about it you had to read certain parts of a certain newspaper,

which many residents didn't know about." Many residents thought the

city needed a better education plan, which the city took as advice

this year in holding a public forum in January and forming a resident

advisory council. The City also does not yet have any plans to spray

pesticide in the neighborhoods.

Cambridge's response plan includes working very closely with other

city departments to help prevent the virus' spreading as much as

possible. West Nile Virus is said to be spread by birds, and one

such department the City is in touch with is the Cambridge Animal

Control Office, which people are supposed to call to report any dead

birds they might find.

"Since March of this year, we've taken in 10 birds for testing but

none have tested positive yet," said Cambridge Animal Control Officer

Christina Gurskis. She said they have been receiving many calls

reporting birds this year, but not as many as last year and people

don't seem as concerned yet as they were last year. "(This year),

once they find a dead bird, they usually are more alarmed," said

Gurskis. "But this time last year was more hectic." Gurskis said she

encourages people in her area to keep checking the website of the

Massachusetts Department of Public Health for updates and tips as

well.

Since mosquitoes breed in standing water, the City is encouraging

people to make sure tires are disposed of properly since tires can

collect water. Resident can call the Cambridge Department of Public

Works to have any tires picked up or to report any standing water in

their neighborhood.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has been working with

cities all over the state to make sure people are aware of how they

can help prevent the West Nile Virus from spreading. "We can't go

directly to all six million people in the state, so we go to those

who can help us spread the word," said Dr. Bela Matyas, Medical

Director of Epidemiology in the Massachusetts Department of Public

Health.

This work with the various municipalities in the state involves

getting the word out through use of the media, telling doctors so

they can inform their patients, and getting information out to

campgrounds, state parks, and libraries, said Matyas. "Most of our

information has focused on prevention, such as getting rid of

standing water and informing people on how they can avoid getting

bitten by mosquitoes," he said.

The Department of Health also has a hotline that people can contact

with any questions or comments they might have. Matyas said they've

gotten hundreds of phone calls this year, and the general feeling of

the callers and the public seems much calmer than last year. "We

certainly know more about (West Nile Virus) than we did last year,

and the media has reacted to it in a calmer manner than last year,"

he said.

People are also being aggressively tested in Massachusetts, with 50

human tests so far. There have been no human cases of West Nile

Virus reported this year, but last year at least 20 people around the

country were infected and in 1999, 62 people were infected.

Increased rainfall in the south has cities and states bracing for

more mosquitoes. West Nile Virus in dead birds has also been

discovered in Georgia and Florida. In Georgia, epidemiologists with

the Department of Human Resources have been monitoring mosquitoes and

advising physicians on the virus.

Paul Binder, a Church World Service Disaster Resource Consultant in

Florida, said that the biggest prevention method he's seen so far in

Florida has been the municipalities spraying pesticide in the cities.

In response to virus findings in northern Florida, the American Red

Cross of Tallytown, Florida, has put up a West Nile Virus information

section on their web site. The site includes fact sheets, maps, and

even education curriculum for elementary school students.

In Tennessee, increased rainfall has more and more people calling the

public health departments to complain of mosquitoes. The city of

Memphis has a mosquito-control program that involves testing over 20

birds everyday and monitoring a sentinel flock of 100 chickens. Even

with all the preparation methods, mosquito populations are only

expected to get worse before they get better since the late summer is

the height of the breeding season for the insects.


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