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West Nile cases triple

The number of Americans infected with the West Nile virus tripled in the span of one week.


"Every sign indicates that it's on the increase."

—Julie Gerberding

The number of Americans infected with the West Nile virus tripled in the span of one week, said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control during a Thursday telebriefing.

The CDC reported 153 people in 16 states as infected with the virus in 2003, Gerberding said, and all of these cases were caused by mosquito bites. At least four people have died from encephalitis, or an inflammation of brain tissue, caused by the virus. (At the same time last year, 112 cases were reported in four states.) Gerberding also pointed out that the median age of the people infected has dropped from 55 years of age (last year's median) to 45 years.

One important finding, she said, shows that the virus is rapidly expanding in the western United States Colorado, for example, which had no indications of the virus last year and this year has recorded 72 cases.

"Last year at this time, you could see that Colorado had no human cases of West Nile, and actually no West Nile activity at all," she told reporters. "Whereas this year, it's leading the country in the number of new cases."

The fact that so many cases were confirmed in the past week could signal an alarming trend, she said, since most cases of the virus appear in August and September the months of peak mosquito activity. If the numbers are this high in the first weeks of August, the CDC reasons, then the numbers are likely to climb even higher during the coming weeks.

"That is very concerning to us," she said. "It indicates that we are starting the epidemic with more cases and more areas affected last year, and if the same pattern proves to hold true, we could be seeing an even greater number of affected people."

The virus has so far spread through most of the United States, according to CDC data, excluding the West Coast, Maine, Alaska and Hawaii. Infected animals or insects have been found in 38 states.

The CDC continues to make the same recommendations for the prevention of West Nile transmission that it outlined in its "Fight the Bite" public relations campaign. These suggestions include the use of mosquito repellant which contains DEET, the installation or repair of home window screen, the wearing of long pants and long-sleeved shirts during outdoor activities and the cleanup of small containers or used tires, which can collect rain water.

But despite these precautions, the West Nile virus will continue to spread across the country, even according to the most optimistic CDC data. However, the actual level of danger to the average American is still fairly low, and the public health threat will likely remain negligible.

The chance that any one person is going to become ill from a mosquito bite remains low, according to the CDC. Most people who are infected with the virus will not develop any symptoms at all. The risk of severe illness and death is highest for people over 50 years old.

"The bottom line is that it's here, it's happening in a lot of jurisdictions," Gerberding said. "Every sign indicates that it's on the increase, and now is the time for people to step up their efforts to fight the bite."

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