Originally created 07/12/01

West Nile scare stays out of state

Although the mosquito-borne West Nile virus was found in a dead bird last weekend in Florida, there have been no reports in Georgia and there is no reason to panic, health officials said.

The best response is to try and keep down the mosquito population, educate the public and maintain vigilance, officials said.

Belying the media frenzy this week, there has been no confirmed case of the virus, which can cause a brain infection called encephalitis and in a small number of cases leads to death. The hubbub apparently started after a physician treating a sick child in the Atlanta area added a West Nile test to a battery of tests he ordered be done on the girl, said East Central Health District Director Frank Rumph.

Despite media reports in the Atlanta area, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were never asked to do any testing and are not involved in any suspected case, spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said.

So far, the bird in Florida is the only case reported outside the Northeast, though last year an infected bird was found as far south as North Carolina, Ms. Burden said.

It is expected to reach Georgia eventually, Dr. Rumph said.

"This is not if but when," he said. Until it reaches the area, all public health officials can do is keep an eye out and ask the public to report any suspicious dead birds so they can be sent off for testing, Dr. Rumph said.

Educating the public about the relatively low risk of getting the disease from a mosquito bite is also key.

"People don't have all the information about it," Dr. Rumph said. "People tend to fear things they don't know a lot about."

West Nile was first reported in 1999 in the New York area and that year caused 62 severe illnesses and seven deaths, according to the CDC. Last year, it accounted for 17 cases and one death. Georgia and Augusta are already home to similar mosquito-born diseases, such as St. Louis encephalitis which causes similar symptoms, said Keith Woeltje, a epidemiologist at Medical College of Georgia Hospital. Those are generally flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph glands and possibly rash. The treatment is usually supportive care, such as keeping the person comfortable, providing intravenous fluids and helping their breathing, if needed, according to the CDC.

"Whenever we see somebody with what looks like a viral encephalitis, we usually send off the test for a variety of things," Dr. Woeltje said. "Once we knew West Nile was in this area, that would be added to the list that we test for."

Only about one person in 150 who gets infected with the virus will develop serious symptoms, said Susan Lance-Parker, the chief of the notifiable disease epidemiology section at the Georgia Division of Public Health. Of those who get sick, the CDC estimates between 3 and 15 percent will die. The type of mosquito known to carry it also prefers birds to people, which should lower the risk, said Cheryl Turner, an environmental health specialist with Richmond County Health Department's environmental health section.

Still, it is important to try and keep the mosquito population down to reduce the risk, Ms. Turner said.

Richmond County is spraying four nights a week and should hit every neighborhood every two to three weeks, Ms. Turner said. Because they are using a fine mist sprayer and the gas is less noxious than in the past, people might not even realize their neighborhood has been sprayed, she said. Richmond County will spend about $95,000 this year battling mosquitoes, but Columbia County does not have an eradication program, she said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.


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