- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

The West Nile virus is spreading rapidly across the United States, faster than most infection specialists anticipated since it was first detected in Queens, N.Y., in 1999 its first known presence in the Westen Hemisphere.
The mosquito-borne virus that killed nine persons last year has fanned out steadily, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detecting it in 32 states and the District, and as far west as South Dakota.
West Nile could become a permanent resident of the continental United States within a decade, said Paul Slota, spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.
It does appear to be spreading much quicker than other viruses "because it's carried by migratory birds bitten by mosquitoes," he said.
Last year, 66 Americans became ill with the virus nine of whom died, according to the CDC. This year, 12 cases of human infection have been detected, 11 of them in Louisiana and Mississippi. None has been fatal.
"Anyone bitten by a mosquito shouldn't run to their physician. But if they develop fever, headaches, muscle aches flulike symptoms I would certainly recommend that they be seen," said another CDC specialist, Dr. Stephen Ostroff.
There's no drug known to cure the virus that can cause life-threatening illnesses such as encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain or spinal cord. Hospitals provide supportive care and treat symptoms while the body fights the disease. The elderly and those with compromised immune systems are most likely to become seriously ill.
"The peak time to get infected [with West Nile virus] is between now through October," said Dr. Lyle Petersen, deputy director of science in the CDC's vector-borne Infection division.
The virus, which is transmitted to humans only through mosquito bites, is spread mainly by migrating birds that are also bitten by mosquitoes. Dead birds, mainly blue jays and crows, are the most important signals for health officials to track the disease.
Peggy Keller, chief of animal disease prevention for the D.C. government, said human infection with the virus is rare, as is the likelihood of becoming severely ill.
In areas where mosquitoes have tested positive, she said, there is only a 1-in-1,000 chance that any one mosquito is positive. If a mosquito that tests positive bites you, she said, the odds you will be infected are 1-in-300.
In most cases, "the symptoms are very mild," Ms. Keller said.
One federal health official said the infections detected so far this year "started a month earlier than they did during the past three years."
"It is a serious threat for humans. Admittedly, it hasn't affected that many people yet. But there is that potential, because outbreak conditions can occur," said Dr. Nicholas Komar, a West Nile virus specialist for the CDC based in Fort Collins, Colo.
West Nile infection can "cause epidemics. There's historical data on that," said Dr. Petersen. As many as several thousand people have died in outbreaks in Africa and the Middle East, he said.

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