Springfield State Journal Register

September 25, 2002

West Nile vaccine may be available in three years 
Health experts testify at hearing chaired by Durbin 


WASHINGTON - As two more deaths in Illinois were reported, federal health experts told a Senate panel Tuesday that a vaccine to protect against West Nile virus might be available in three years.

In addition, a way to test the nation's blood supply for the mosquito-borne virus might be available by next summer, federal experts said.

Illinois leads the nation with 29 deaths caused by West Nile virus and 518 reported cases as of Tuesday.

Testifying at the hearing, Illinois Department of Public Health Director John Lumpkin asked senators Tuesday for federal help in researching why many of Illinois' cases are clustered in two areas in Cook County, one in the north near Skokie and the other in the southwest near Oak Lawn.

The areas are the same that had a large number of cases in 1975 of St. Louis encephalitis, a mosquito-borne virus similar to West Nile. The studies weren't done in 1975.

"We shouldn't miss the opportunity this year that may leave us better prepared down the road," said Lumpkin, who estimated the study would cost a few million dollars.

Lumpkin said he couldn't predict whether next year would be worse for Illinois. The 1975 St. Louis virus caused 578 cases and 47 deaths, but a year later there were only 19 cases and no deaths, he said.

The current West Nile virus outbreak may wane as other virus outbreaks have.

"We're going to plan as if it's not and we're going to hope that it will," Lumpkin said.

So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided $44 million to states and cities to help in their fight against West Nile virus. Lumpkin and other state officials said more federal money would help to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds and to assist state public health labs in testing to confirm the disease.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chaired the hearing, said he's included
$750,000 in an appropriations bill to help Illinois fight the disease. If it receives final approval, it would be dispersed through the state's agriculture department.

"We had hoped for a break in the battle against West Nile virus as the mosquito season winds down in most places across America, but the threats to our blood supply tell us that this dangerous legacy may now threaten us year-round," said Durbin, who chaired the joint hearing of the Senate Government affairs subcommittee and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

One of Durbin's interns was hospitalized briefly for West Nile virus after visiting the Illinois State Fair, he said.

Nationwide, the virus has killed 94 people and infected 1,672 in 31 states and Washington, D.C.

While recent reports that the virus can be spread through blood
transfusions and organ transplants and can cause polio-like paralysis have alarmed people, Durbin asked the public health experts to put the virus outbreak in perspective.

Compared to the flu and AIDS, which have each killed many millions, it's unlikely that West Nile virus, which was first reported in the United States in 1999, would ever get on the same radar screen, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.

"However, we should take it seriously," Fauci said. "It's not trivial."

Several promising drugs are being tested to treat the disease and one company plans to begin tests soon on a potential vaccine. Scientists believe there may be a link between immunity to yellow fever, dengue fever and St. Louis encephalitis and immunity to West Nile, Fauci said.

The Food and Drug Administration hopes to have blood banks testing for West Nile virus as early as next summer, said Jesse Goodman, deputy director of FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.