Originally created 03/03/03

Southern states preparing for new West Nile virus season



ATLANTA -- Across the South, officials are getting mosquito traps ready, ordering lab equipment and preparing information to re-educate the public at the start of yet another season of dealing with the West Nile virus.

"It's like it never stopped," said Dr. Sally Slavinski, epidemiologist with the Mississippi State Department of Health. "We're hoping it won't be too busy this year, but we expect it will be busy."

More is known about the virus than ever before, but officials hope their efforts during an era of state budget tightening will be enough. Nobody wants a repeat of last year, when the United States played host to the largest outbreak of the virus in history with more than 4,000 human cases and 263 deaths.

"We are putting all of the policies together for more intensive surveillance," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, state epidemiologist for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. "The first week of March we want to be ready."

Getting ready includes coordinating with county programs to kill mosquito larvae before they hatch, seeking out infected birds or pools of infected mosquitoes to discover where virus activity is highest and preparing doctors to diagnose human cases.

"The birds were a big issue. They were a successful surveillance tool," said Laurie Lacer, arboviral surveillance coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Health. "We had positive birds in areas six weeks before we had positive human (cases). It gave us a big opportunity to educate the public."

Yet health officials thought the public was too fixated on birds instead of on human health risks. State labs couldn't handle the flow of thousands of dead birds sent in for testing. But officials couldn't persuade people to wear long-sleeved clothing or use insect repellent during times when mosquitoes were most active.

"We need to get people's minds off of birds," said Rosemarie Kelly, medical epidemiologist for the Georgia Division of Public Health. "Birds aren't the problem - mosquitoes are the problem. We don't want to get people sidetracked and forget" about the importance of personal protection measures and destroying pools of water near homes where mosquitoes can hatch.

Getting that message out to the public will be another challenge. In Mississippi, officials are looking at the best ways to release and tailor West Nile information to different state areas. They will use church leaders, public officials and the media.

"One of the big things we want to improve this year is getting the consistent, concise message across about personal protections, because behavior is such a hard thing to change," Slavinski said. "When you're dealing with West Nile, people feel they have no control and feel a sense of danger. Hopefully we can change their behavior."

Budget cuts are adding to health officials' West Nile dilemma, as already-tight resources within health departments are increasingly being stretched.

But ultimately, officials said, successfully dealing with West Nile virus will have to be on a personal level.

"There's a limit to what the state can do and a limit to what the county can do," Kelly said. "The individual is in control of dealing with the issue of mosquitoes and protecting themselves."

On the Net:

CDC West Nile info: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/index.htm