- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Top health professionals yesterday said that although a focus on SARS may be warranted, an outbreak of the West Nile virus this summer could be bad, too, and areas — especially those experiencing a drought — should take precautions and watch for it in animals.

“It might be said that the mosquito-borne West Nile virus represents a bigger threat than SARS in that it ‘jumps species’ with more than 230 types of animals, including 138 species of birds … infected to date,” said Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

In 2002, the West Nile virus infected 4,000 people and took 284 lives in the United States. Dr. Epstein said it is difficult to predict what this season will look like, but it is “entirely reasonable” that the impact will be as significant as last year.

The illness is spread primarily through mosquitoes that feed on infected birds, then transmit the virus to humans and animals. Most people who become infected do not get sick. Some, however, get flulike symptoms, and less than 1 percent become severely ill with West Nile encephalitis, which causes a swelling of the brain.

James Meegan, a virology program officer at the National Institutes of Health, said that because West Nile can hide in many different types of animals, it is virtually impossible to eradicate, even if a vaccine is developed. He said SARS appears to be passing only from human to human.

“SARS might only have one host; West Nile has many hosts,” he said.

A Senate panel yesterday approved legislation aimed at stopping the spread of the West Nile virus. The bill, approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would provide $100 million in local grants and research to control the mosquito population.

“Helping local governments contain their mosquito population this summer is our best chance at avoiding another season of outbreaks,” said committee Chairman Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican.

Dr. Epstein warned areas experiencing a drought to use particular caution this year.

During a drought, rain settles in drains making perfect mosquito-breeding grounds; birds congregate around standing water; and warming naturally speeds up the maturation of the virus itself.

There is no vaccine for the West Nile virus in humans, but the NIH has been funding efforts to develop one.

Dr. Meegan said a company in Massachusetts has a promising West Nile vaccine ready to begin testing in humans.

The West Nile virus commonly was found in Africa, West Asia, and the Middle East, but made its appearance in the United States in New York in 1999 and has been moving westward.

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