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Bird search tracks West Nile virus

May 07, 2001

Bird search tracks West Nile virus



By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

kimy@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Health Department is asking people to be on the lookout for dead birds so that the bird carcasses can be tested for West Nile virus.

The mosquito-borne disease has been documented in Frederick County, Md., and it's only a matter of time before the virus it heads west, said Roderick MacRae, county health department spokesman.

"At some point we expect to have West Nile present in Washington County," said MacRae.

He said an infected bird was found in Frederick County last year.

"The problem is closer to home than we realize," he said.

Anyone who notices a dead bird in their neighborhood should call the health department hot line at 1-866-866-2769. All species of birds are being tested to see if they died from West Nile virus.

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"Birds are particularly susceptible, and so, they are used as an indicator," of how widespread the disease has become, said MacRae.

The 24-hour hotline provides a menu of options for the caller. The calls are screened. If it appears the bird carcass discovered is appropriate for the study, a health department worker will pick it up, he said. Area residents are asked to help preserve the carcass by keeping it cold. The disease cannot be transmitted by handling the carcasses, said MacRae.

The disease is passed on to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito, said MacRae.

This will be the third year health departments across the state have tested birds for the disease, he said.

The health department received a poor response from the public in the first two years of the study and is hoping for a better response this year, he said.

"We'd like to collect as many as possible," said MacRae.

West Nile virus was first detected in the U.S. in 1999 and is primarily a concern for the elderly or people with weakened immune systems, he said.

Most people who are infected will not get sick. Others may have mild symptoms, which begin five to 15 days after a mosquito bite. Common symptoms are neck stiffness, headache, fever, convulsions, seizures and disorientation.

"Most people recover from the illness, but permanent neurological problems and death can occur," according to literature from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Epidemiology and Disease Control Program.

About 1 percent of people infected with the disease develop encephalitis or meningitis, the health department wrote. Encephalitis is the inflammation of the brain. Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, which are the three membranes that envelop the brain and spinal cord.

If West Nile is determined to be in Washington County, health department officials will have to decide whether to spray to decrease the mosquito population, he said.

MacRae said people can do their part to keep mosquitos under control by removing tires or containers on their property with standing water, filling in puddles or ruts with dirt, treating swimming pools, keeping screen doors and window screens sealed, repairing leaky pipes and outdoor faucets and avoiding using wind deterrents like lattice or trellis around a garden or patio.

MacRae said he has no doubt that the disease will be present in this or future studies.

"The question is to what magnitude," he said.

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