West Nile Virus Probably Bound for Puget Sound

Micki Flowers

Monday, June 17, 2002
The hunt is on in Washington state for a rare virus, that sometimes kills.

Public health officials say it's just a matter of time before West Nile virus shows up here. Most people won't get sick.

But in very rare cases, it's a serious infection, that can cause swelling of the brain which can kill. There is no vaccine.

So health investigators are fanning out across the state, searching for carriers of the virus.

Monica Roppo is on a mission. She's an environmental detective, searching for mosquitoes. In a swampy area of the Arboretum she found a bonanza.

Roppo is part of a state-wide surveillance effort, to track down the first evidence that West Nile virus has spread to the West Coast.

Since 1999 the mosquito borne virus has killed 18 people and sickened dozens of others in the East and Midwest.

The virus hasn't shown up in Washington state yet, but environmental investigators have found certain mosquitoes capable of carrying the disease. Dr. Jeff Duchin, director of Communicable Disease Control for Public Health in Seattle/King County says the virus is just around the corner.

"We're thinking it may be found here this year, maybe next. It's probably going to get here sooner or later," he said.

Even if it does, Dr. Duchin says people shouldn't panic needlessly. It rarely makes people sick.

"Only one out of 150 or so persons who become infected develop any symptoms at all. And usually, it's a mild disease with a headache, maybe some fever, a flu-like illness."

Dr. Duchin says the elderly have the highest risk of severe complications.

Birds are also susceptible to the virus. So part of the surveillance effort is to test dead birds for signs that the mosquito-borne virus has arrived.

And health officials says everyone can help, by eliminating places where mosquitoes breed.

Primarily, any areas of standing water should be eliminated. You are asked to call the public Health Department if you find dead birds.

Local doctors have been alerted to look out for symptoms of West Nile virus and to report any case of the disease.

For more information on this story:
Public Health's Communicable Disease Hotline: 206-296-4949
Public Health's May 2002 issue of Epi-Log
West Nile Virus fact sheet from the CDC
Washington State Department of Health press release

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