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West Nile Infections Mounting Fast

CDC reports tripling of cases in just a week

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THURSDAY, Aug. 7, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The number of West Nile virus infections in the United States has tripled since last week. That means more people could be stricken with the disease this year than ever before, federal officials warn.

A total of 16 states have now reported a total of 153 human cases of infection. Colorado has been hit hardest, with 72 cases. Texas follows with 19 and Louisiana with 15.

Federal health officials have officially confirmed four deaths, but these reports typically lag behind those of state health departments. Colorado officials have reported four deaths, for instance.

At this time last year, there were 112 cases of West Nile in four states, with Louisiana leading the pack. Colorado had no cases.

"We are starting the epidemic with more cases and more areas affected, and if the same pattern holds true, we may be seeing an even greater number of affected people," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news briefing Thursday.

"Although we haven't recorded infection activity yet in the farthest western states, we don't want to be lulled into any sense that those states would be immune. We know that this virus is on the move, and no one can be assumed to be exempt."

West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes that pick it up when feeding on infected birds and animals. In past years, about one in 200 humans infected with the virus became seriously ill with encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord). Roughly 20 in 200 people experienced less severe, flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. But those risk levels could change.

This year's epidemic differs from last year's in other respects as well. For instance, the median age for patients this year is 45, while last year it was 55.

It's possible that the younger median age and the larger numbers may be partly due to better testing methods, but that doesn't explain it all, Gerberding warned.

Big strides have been made in the area of blood screening, where new technologies are able to detect blood samples tainted with the virus and remove them from circulation. The National Institutes of Health is also working on a vaccine, but it won't be ready in time to make a difference this year.

The only safety measures left for now are the old-fashioned personal protection steps. Gerberding stressed using an insect repellant that contains DEET and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long trousers. Also, make sure you have screens on your home's windows and that you empty containers with standing water, including flower pots, bird baths, soda cans, and old tires.

This advice is especially important for the elderly, who are more likely to become severely ill from the virus.

"This problem is certainly not in any better shape than last year and we could be in for a serious affliction this summer if we don't take steps," Gerberding said.

More information

For more on West Nile virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For more on the safety of the blood supply, try the American Association of Blood Banks.

SOURCES: Teleconference with Julie Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Aug. 8, 2003 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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