89 infected with West Nile virus in 3 states; 4 dead

Louisiana governor declares West Nile emergency

08/03/2002

Associated Press
Dallas News

SLIDELL, La. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus, striking the earliest ever in this country, has now killed four people in Louisiana, health officials say.

The virus has infected at least 89 people in three states including 44 new cases confirmed Friday. Louisiana officials reported 26 new cases, bringing the state total to 58, including four deaths. Mississippi reported 18 new cases, for a total of 23.

The virus has spread to virtually every part of Louisiana, prompting the governor to declare an emergency and ask for federal help.

Four patients are in intensive care, and health officials are checking out more possible cases.

"We have a whole bunch of suspects, and it is not going to go down. This is only the beginning," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, the state epidemiologist.

The virus is heading west and south. West Nile virus has been found in birds or animals in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Eight people in Texas and five in Mississippi are sick with West Nile encephalitis.

"It will eventually get to all the Western states over time," Dr. Roy Campbell, medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference Friday.

The spread also indicates it will eventually move south out of the United States into Central and South America, Dr. Ratard said.

West Nile virus struck earlier this year than ever before in this country. Most cases have been diagnosed in August or September since the first and worst outbreak, which killed seven and hospitalized 55 in New York in 1999. The disease was found in 12 Louisiana residents in June.

 

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The early start could be because different mosquitoes spread it, because the warm Deep South winters let them stay alive year-round to spread the virus to birds or because of the drought in many states, Dr. Anthony Marfin, a West Nile expert at the CDC, said Thursday.

In addition, he said, "we have incredible surveillance" for West Nile better than for any other mosquito-borne virus. With doctors, veterinarians and mosquito control experts on the lookout for it, cases that might have been overlooked are being diagnosed, he said.

This week, health officials confirmed that an 83-year-old Baton Rouge woman had died from West Nile. The latest victims are all men: a 53-year-old from Folsom, a 75-year-old from Baton Rouge and a 72-year-old from the Calcasieu Parish town of Iowa.

These are the first deaths in the nation from West Nile this year and bring the national total to 22 since 1999.

Officials said the virus had been confirmed in 34 states this year, mostly in birds. Mosquitoes spread the virus from infected birds to people, who can then develop encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. The vast majority of infected people don't get sick at all, and most of those who do become ill develop only flu-like symptoms.

Louisiana is a mosquito heaven, with its bayous, swamps and litter where stagnant water attracts egg-laden female mosquitoes.

But that doesn't necessarily mean it will be a hot spot for West Nile epidemics, Dr. Campbell said.

"It can be bad one year, and then you don't see it in humans for two or three years," he said.

For example, he said, no human cases have shown up this year in Florida, which is equally mosquito-friendly and had 11 human cases last year.

Dr. Campbell said a more important factor seems to be the intensity of the virus, a matter of transmission from birds to mosquitoes to humans.

"It's poorly understood, but it's a complex inter-relationship between many natural factors that cause these epidemics," Dr. Campbell said, citing the number of mosquitoes, the species of mosquitoes, the climate and other factors.

Of the 58 cases in Louisiana, at least 12 are in hospitals, including four in intensive care. The virus has been found in 24 parishes, including 13 where it has made people ill.

Gov. Mike Foster declared a statewide emergency, hoping to get $3 million to $5 million in federal money for parishes that have already gone far into their mosquito spraying budgets.


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