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Officials: West Nile will slow with cold

September 30, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

As the death toll from the mosquito-borne West Nile virus continues to climb nationwide, health officials urge people to continue taking precautions against mosquitoes until colder weather arrives.

The first hard freeze will make dormant the West Nile-infected mosquitoes that spread the virus by biting humans, animals and birds, Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel said.

There is no evidence to suggest West Nile can be spread from person to person or from animal to person, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

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There is no human vaccine against West Nile or treatment for the virus.

"It's viral," Christoffel said. "It has to sort of run its course."

Health officials stress that most people infected with the virus will not get seriously ill.

"A lot of people can get infected with West Nile virus and have no symptoms, said Sandy Sullivan, community health nursing supervisor for the Washington County Health Department.

But the virus can be deadly, especially for people with weak immune systems, including the young and the old.

The recent deaths of two Maryland residents - a 65-year-old Prince George's County man and an 85-year-old Montgomery County woman - have been linked to West Nile virus.

A West Nile-positive Anne Arundel County woman, 79, died Sept. 19 after being admitted to the hospital for encephalitis, but West Nile virus has not been confirmed as her cause of death, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Six Marylanders tested positive for West Nile in 2001, and three died.

A blood test is used to detect the virus.

U.S. death toll



The West Nile-related death toll has climbed to 110 nationwide, including 29 deaths in Illinois; 15 in Michigan; 12 in Louisiana; nine in Ohio; seven in Mississippi; five in Georgia; four each in Kentucky and Tennessee; three each in Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Pennsylvania; two each in Massachusetts, North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin; and one each in Alabama, Arkansas and Virginia, according to CDC statistics through Friday.

More than 2,200 people have been infected this year in 35 states and the District of Columbia, according to the CDC.

More than 500 Maryland residents have been tested for the West Nile virus since May 1, and 10 human cases of the virus had been confirmed as of Friday, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

A 37-year-old Frederick County man tested positive for West Nile earlier this month, and preliminary test results indicate a Washington County woman is infected with the virus, Christoffel said recently.

The results of that test, and the blood tests of five other Washington County residents checked for West Nile virus, had not been confirmed as of Friday, health officials said.

Though most people infected with West Nile will suffer no symptoms, some may develop flu-like symptoms and fewer still will develop more serious illnesses, health officials said.

While the more common influenza virus often causes such symptoms as body aches and fever, West Nile virus can cause muscle weakness, sustained high fever and neck stiffness, Sullivan said.

"Flu symptoms are much less severe," she said.

Flu more serious



Many more people will die from complications from the influenza virus than from West Nile. Complications from the flu kill about 20,000 Americans each year, according to CDC statistics.

Less than 1 percent of people exposed to West Nile virus will develop life-threatening infections, including encephalitis, meningitis and meningoencephalitis, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Those infections have symptoms such as headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis.

Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane around the brain and the spinal cord. Meningoencephalitis refers to inflammation of the brain and the membrane surrounding it.

In addition to contracting West Nile virus from infected mosquitoes, humans can probably get the virus - which can survive in donated blood - through blood transfusions, federal health officials said recently.

The chance of receiving virus-tainted blood from American Red Cross supplies is minimal, and there is no chance of getting the virus from giving blood, said Jennifer Mansfield, regional spokeswoman for the organization.

Red Cross workers carefully screen prospective blood donors, eliminating donors with symptoms of illness and those who have been ill in recent weeks, Mansfield said.

"Unfortunately, there is no validated blood test to screen donated blood for this virus," she said.

West Nile - which can infect humans, birds, mosquitoes, horses and some other mammals - has been commonly found in Africa, Eastern Europe, West Asia and the Middle East.

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