- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Last year about this time, the District had its first confirmed human case of West Nile Virus. The virus eventually infected 34 individuals in the District, 29 in Virginia and 36 in Maryland, killing 10. In total, the virus killed 284 of the 4,156 individuals it afflicted across the country. So far this year, the virus has not ailed anyone in the Washington region, according to the CDC.

There could be a number of reasons for this good news. For starters, D.C.-area residents are more aware of, and are practicing, the basic precautions they can take to prevent an infection. The lower rates could also be a consequence of the birds having developed resistance to the virus. West Nile cases tend to peak in the second year the virus is in an area — before bird populations have adapted — and it shows. Relatively few infections have been reported along the Atlantic seaboard. Meanwhile, Colorado has been hard-hit (36 cases, no fatalities), and New Mexico recently recorded its first two human cases.

The West Nile Virus lives primarily in birds, and it is passed to humans principally through mosquito bites. However, only a small percentage of mosquitos in a given population actually carry the virus, and only about only one in five of those infected will actually be afflicted by the flu-like symptoms it causes. About one in 150 will develop serious symptoms.

Beyond those basic odds against a West Nile infection, there’s also reason to be cautiously optimistic on the testing and research front. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the first laboratory diagnostic test for the virus. While not definitive, it can give a clear indication of an infection within a few hours. Since last year, the FDA has also set up additional tests to screen both the blood supply and potential donors for the virus. In addition, several potential vaccines are being worked on, the most promising of which may have begun preliminary human testing before the end of this year’s virus season.

However, the virus is active in far more states than it was last year, and so optimism about its potential toll must be extremely guarded. To reduce the risk, the CDC has emphasized several commonsense measures, including: applying insect repellant that contains DEET; wearing long-sleeves and long pants when possible (and if tolerable); draining basins of standing water; and installing or repairing screens.

So long as residents continue to practice commonsense measures, there is reason to hope that the virus won’t bite as badly as it has in the past.

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