- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

The mosquito-borne West Nile virus is in North America to stay, and residents here and around the country will have to make some changes in the way they enjoy the outdoors, national health officials said yesterday in Fairfax.
"The virus is here, and it's going to stay. It's endemic in this region. They're going to have to get into a mode of, 'This is something we'll have to deal with year after year,'" said Robert G. McLean of the Department of Agriculture's National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo.
Mr. McLean was one of several national health and science officials who met in Fairfax to discuss the outbreak.
The first confirmed evidence of the mosquito-borne virus in the United States was a dead crow found in New York in 1999.
Since then, the virus which can be fatal to humans, like the elderly or the very young, with weakened immune systems has spread dramatically, raging through the country's bird population.
In the past year, there was "the largest outbreak of an arboviral meningitislike disease that has occurred in the Western Hemisphere," said Charles S. Apperson, professor of entomology at North Carolina State University.
"What happened in 2002 is, the virus literally exploded," he told the assembled local health and public works officials and mosquito control experts.
West Nile virus killed 246 persons nationwide in 2002, and infected 3,873 more in 40 states, including Maryland, Virginia and the District. There were 31 human cases in Maryland and six deaths, 28 cases and two deaths in Virginia, and 37 cases along with two deaths in the District.
"The transmission of the virus is much more extensive than the public really realizes," said Mr. Apperson."In four years, it practically exceeded all other arboviral diseases that happened over 40 years, so it's a pretty significant event."
The most severe symptoms of the West Nile virus are similar to St. Louis encephalitis, a swelling of the brain so much so that West Nile infections were mistakenly diagnosed as encephalitis when it first appeared four years ago. But in 40 years, there have been only 4,600 cases of St. Louis encephalitis in the country.
In four years, there have been 4,014 cases of West Nile virus.
Most of those cases produce only minor symptoms. "Most of the infections are subclinical. You may get a headache or a slight fever. Most of the infections there aren't any symptoms," said Mr. McLean.
However, the virus has had a significant negative effect on some animal populations, particularly birds like hawks, owls, crows and blue jays. About 138 species of birds have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having specimens infected with the West Nile virus.
"It's a legitimate concern, and it's going to take a long time for some of these bird populations to recover that are being hit hard by the virus," said Mr. Apperson.
Horses, bats, chipmunks, skunks, squirrels, and even alligators have also been infected. More than 14,000 horses fell ill nationally last year. Mr. Apperson said that as the problem becomes a state issue, it will need more attention and funding.
"Unfortunately, because of the hard times we are in, I think it's being taken too lightly, that we need more money into mosquito control and mosquito surveillance than we are getting right now," he said.
Scientists expect the virus to reach the West Coast this year.
"They have high populations of mosquitoes that feed both on birds and on people, and so they're going to get hit pretty hard this next year," Mr. Apperson said. Scientists expect the virus to reach the West Coast via infected birds who flew south to Mexico this past fall and infected birds who will then migrate north to the West Coast this spring.
West Nile is active from June to October, and peaks during late September. Its ability to stay active despite cold weather, possibly through migratory birds, has made it one of the "big questions" for scientists.
To protect against infection from West Nile virus, scientists said residents should eliminate standing water near or around their residences, report dead birds to health officials, and share information with neighbors.


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