- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Since it was introduced to the United States three years ago, the West Nile Virus has spread to 34 states (all east of the Rockies) as well as the District of Columbia. This summer, it has killed five Louisiana residents and sickened dozens more. To date, nearly 100 cases of West Nile encephalitis the disease caused by the virus have been diagnosed (one this week in the District of Columbia), making it the largest outbreak the nation has seen. There's no known vaccine. Yet, despite those grim facts, there's no reason for panic.
While mosquito bites certainly aren't rare, the bites that transmit the disease to humans certainly are. Even then, only about one in five individuals known to be infected with West Nile will show the flu-like symptoms associated with the disease, according to Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and only one of every 150 will be severely sickened.
Most West Nile infections have been found in birds (more than 60 dead birds in Washington have tested positive for the virus already this year), although the virus also infects a variety of other animals, including cats, horses, squirrels and rabbits. Mosquitos become infected by biting an infected animal and, after taking up temporary residence in the mosquitos' salivary glands, the virus is passed on when the infected mosquito takes a blood meal from something else, be it animal or human.
Given that, most of the suggested precautions center around controlling mosquito populations and feeding opportunities. Mosquitos can breed in stagnant bodies of water as small as a bottle cap, so D.C. residents should dump potential insect dating grounds such as plastic wading pools, flower pots and half-full bottles. People planning on being outside should try to wear long sleeves and long pants. Those already out there should apply liberal doses of insect repellents containing DEET, and be sure to follow instructions on their proper use.
So, other than perhaps offering fly-swatter subsidies, is there anything the government should do? While insect spraying is being handled at the state and local levels, information dissemination is also important. The CDC has done well to set up a special section on the West Nile outbreak on its Web site : https://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/2002spotlight.htm. Those with local concerns should click onto the D.C. Department of Health's Web site: https://www.dchealth.dc.gov/information/fact_sheets/westnilevirus.shtm.
It is not clear how far this current outbreak will extend, although CDC experts expect to see more cases. In the long term, we may well have to, in Dr. Gerberding's words, "learn to live with" the presence of the virus. It's now so well-established in bird and mosquito populations that total eradication is likely impossible. In fact, researchers believe that there's little to stop the virus from continuing to spread to the Pacific.
Still, there's every reason to believe that this won't turn into the summer of the skeeter. The West Nile encephalitis is rare and, for the most part, avoidable. So long as they take reasonable precautions, D.C. residents have little to fear from West Nile.


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