Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Experts: Don't panic about West Nile

Virus real, risk remote

By Tim Bonfield tbonfield@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As West Nile virus creeps its way toward the West Coast, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled the disease an “emerging epidemic.” But that doesn't mean people should overreact by not letting children play outside or by skipping a pleasant gathering on the backyard deck, local public health officials said Monday.

        “People still have to live their lives. They can't realistically live their lives in a cocoon and never go outside,” said Patricia Burg, director of the Butler County General Health District.

  • Some people may not notice any symptoms if they should contract the virus, but for most it causes mild symptoms, which include fever, headache, body aches, skin rash and swollen glands.
  • Severe infections are marked by headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, paralysis and, in rare cases, death.
  • Persons 50 years and older have the highest risk of severe disease.
  • Symptoms usually occur within three to 15 days after transmission.
  Contact your physician if you think you may have contracted the virus. For general questions on West Nile virus, contact your state or county health department.
  Source: Hamilton County General Health District
        “We encourage people to be informed and concerned. But we also say the risk of contracting West Nile virus is minimal,” she said.

        Nationwide, 136 people in six states and the District of Columbia have been diagnosed with West Nile virus. Seven people, all in Louisiana, have died.

        One of the most recent human cases was confirmed Friday in Indiana (in north-central Wabash County). But so far, no human cases have been reported in Ohio, Kentucky or southeast Indiana.

        The virus has been detected in 34 states, including most parts of the Tristate. Eventually, the virus is expected to reach every state in the continental United States, said CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden, but how soon, officials cannot say.

        The outbreak meets the CDC's technical definition of an epidemic because many people are suffering at the same time, the virus has spread quickly, and it can cause serious illness. But no one is attempting to place West Nile virus in the same category as influenza, which kills tens of thousands of people nationwide each year and in rare years decades ago killed hundreds of thousands.

        “We use "epidemic' only as a clinical term,” Ms. Burden said.

  • When outdoors, use a mosquito repellant containing DEET (up to 30 percent concentration is considered sufficient for adults); wear long-sleeved clothes; and when practical, avoid outdoor activity during dusk and dawn when mosquitoes prefer to feed.
  • Eliminate areas of standing water on your property such as tires, stagnant bird baths, ceramic pots, clogged roof gutters and other containers.
  • For ornamental ponds and fountains, maintain water aeration and circulation; consider stocking with mosquito-eating fish.
  • For standing water that cannot be eliminated, county officials often use “dunks” that kill mosquito larvae. Various brands of mosquito dunks are sold commercially.
  • Public spraying programs have been launched in Louisiana and are common in some parts of the country, but have not been started here. So far, the concentrations of mosquitoes found with West Nile virus have not been large enough to meet Ohio Health Department guidelines.
        Unlike influenza, West Nile virus cannot be spread from person to person. People get the virus from being bitten by infected mosquitoes, and even then, contracting a serious illness is rare.

        Sooner or later, officials predict some people in or near Greater Cincinnati will catch West Nile virus.

        “We do expect to see human cases here,” said Ohio Health Department spokesman Jay Carey. “The virus has been detected in 80 (of Ohio's 88) counties.

        “People should be aware. And they should take steps such as using mosquito repellant and eliminating pools of stagnant water. But they don't need to panic,” he said.

        The newness of West Nile virus has attracted a significant amount of tracking and testing among public health agencies at the county, state and federal levels, which in turn has generated intense media coverage.

        But officials also say this is just one more disease that can be spread by mosquitoes.

        “Mosquitoes have been carriers of disease as long as humans have walked the planet,” said Tim Ingram, Hamilton County health commissioner

        In Greater Cincinnati, several health departments formed SWARM (South West Area Regional Mosquito Task Force) to inform the public about West Nile and to collect dead birds and trap mosquitoes for testing by the state health department.

        As of Aug. 8, SWARM had collected 181 dead birds and more than 26,400 mosquitoes from Hamilton, Butler, Warren, Clermont, Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.

        Positive tests have been reported involving birds or mosquitoes from 34 local neighborhoods, villages and townships, including West Chester Township, Fairfield, Deer Park, Westwood, Lebanon, Harrison, Madeira, Bond Hill and Norwood.

        Just on Monday, another 50 dead-bird reports were received by the Hamilton County Health Department. However, now that tests have established the presence of the virus, the county has stopped sending dead birds to Columbus for testing, Mr. Ingram said.

        Several agencies are still trapping mosquitoes to track the concentration of the virus. Mosquito spraying might be attempted if enough mosquitoes are found to have the virus, or if a rash of human cases breaks out. But in general, public health officials consider spraying an ineffective measure that causes its own share of environmental controversy.

        “This is something that we're still not used to, so it's getting a lot of attention. Maybe once it reaches California, things will settle down,” Mr. Ingram said. “But the fact is we're going to be talking about West Nile virus for years to come.”

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