Canton Repository

May 24, 2003

Health officials alarmed about West Nile virus

By DORI MEINERT
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — With officials bracing for another deadly outbreak of West Nile virus this summer, some experts worry that federal efforts to fight the disease are being undercut by larger concerns over SARS and bioterrorism.

“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, known to be infected to date,” said Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

“We’re budgeting a lot of money for bioterrorism, but we’ve got an agent loose in nature that we don’t understand,” Epstein said.

Ohio ranked third in the nation after Illinois and Michigan with 31 deaths and 441 infections reported last year. Among them were two deaths and eight cases in Stark County. None was reported in Tuscarawas County.

The virus is carried by birds and other animals and spread to humans by mosquitoes. Most people don’t get ill or develop only mild flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and body aches. But older people and those with a weaker immune system might develop more serious health problems, including a potentially fatal swelling of the brain.

No treatment exists, but the National Institutes of Health is working on one. There’s a horse vaccine, but a human vaccine is still a few years off.

Great strides have been made in the past year to protect the nation’s blood supply, health officials say. Last year, 21 people in 10 states, not including Ohio, were infected through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

Beginning July 1, national blood banks will begin screening blood donations for West Nile virus.

“We’ve gone in nine months from no tests to tests that will have been installed in a number of centers around the country to test the whole blood supply,” said Dr. Louis Katz, past chair of the American Association of Blood Banks’ transfusion safety committee.

“It’s really a spectacular accomplishment,” said Katz, comparing it to the five years it took to develop a way to screen blood for the HIV virus.

Disease experts predict this year’s West Nile virus season will be at least as bad as last year, but how bad nobody really knows. What experts do know is that early reports of West Nile virus among birds and animals indicate they’re in for another busy year.

A horse in Minnesota has died from the virus. Dead birds testing positive for West Nile virus have been found in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Minnesota and Michigan. Louisiana officials have reported two human cases.

“When you look at this early season activity, you go ‘wow,’ this is setting up very much like last year. That’s why we’re very concerned it may be a repeat of last year,” said Anthony Marfin, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control’s division of vector-borne infectious diseases.

Ohio and other state public health officials are focusing on public education efforts. Some states are seeking more federal money for mosquito control.

Kristopher Weiss, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health, said it’s “hard to tell” how active the disease will be this year.

“We have not seen any indication of the virus yet,” he said. “We certainly expect we will see virus activity in birds, horses and humans.”

The state began testing dead birds this week in the search of the virus. Authorities will continue the examination until they find two infected birds from each local health district before testing mosquitoes to gauge how active the virus is.

West Nile was first detected in Ohio in 2001. The state recorded its first human infection last year, when the virus went on to kill 31 people in the state.

“We’re seeing states not only gear up, but actually expecting it to be worse than last year as West Nile moves across the country into areas where we didn’t see it last year. You have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario,” said Helen Fox Fields, senior director of infectious disease policy for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control are discussing the creation of a national mosquito control plan with state and local officials. Until now, mosquito-borne diseases have not received much attention in the United States and mosquito control has been left largely to local governments, she said.

In Congress, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last week approved a bill that would authorize grants of up to $100,000 to help cities implement mosquito control plans.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is seeking $750,000 for Illinois’ West Nile virus research efforts.

Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula, chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee that funds the Centers for Disease Control, is unaware of any push for additional funding for West Nile, he said Friday.

“I think this rising level of concern is a very recent phenomenon,” said Regula, R-Bethlehem Township. He said he has confidence that CDC Director Julie Gerberding is paying enough attention to West Nile. “There’s only so much money” to combat disease, he added.

CNS Washington correspondent Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this story.