West Nile infection cases rise in Midwest

Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 3, 2002

The spread of the West Nile virus remains a concern to residents and local governments as cases of infection steadily rise in nearly all parts of the nation.

In Michigan, a 90-year-old Berkley man and an 80-year-old Wayne County man represent the only deaths caused by the West Nile virus. The death of a 65-year-old Ferndale man is still under investigation. On the national level there have been 673 confirmed cases of West Nile infection and 32 deaths this year.

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans through mosquitoes that feed on infected birds. Once the virus enters the body, it travels through the bloodstream, ultimately interfering with the body's central nervous system and causing brain tissue to swell.

Symptoms of the West Nile virus can be treated; however, there is no cure for the infection. Fatalities are most likely among the elderly, young children and others with weak immune systems.

According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, four out of five people who are infected do not feel any symptoms. Mild symptoms include fever and headache, sometimes with skin rashes and swollen lymph glands.

"Most of the time, people don't even know they have (West Nile virus) or pass (the symptoms) off as the flu or a summer cold," said Mark Wilson, associate professor of epidemiology at the University. Wilson said that for those with minor symptoms, their bodies "will eventually develop antibodies to fight off the virus with no long-term consequences as a result."

In the most severe cases, a person may experience high fever, stiff neck, tremors and disorientation, often leading to coma, paralysis or death. About one in 150 people will experience severe symptoms.

Despite the unlikelihood of contracting the virus, Washtenaw County Communicable Diseases Coordinator Linda Lantry suggests that making a concerted effort to minimize contact with mosquitoes is the best form of prevention.

Eliminating pools of standing water where mosquitoes may breed, wearing insect repellent, maintaining screen doors and windows and limiting outdoor activity during evening hours when mosquitoes are most active are some of the preventive measures that Lantry advises.

"You can still have your birdbaths and swimming pools. ... We are just asking the public to be more aware of the problem," Lantry said.

The war against mosquitoes has already begun in several Eastern and Southern states where mosquito spraying has been put into effect.

In Ferndale, mosquito spraying began last Friday. So far, no plans for mosquito spraying have been discussed by the Ann Arbor City Council.

The Washtenaw County Department of Public Health does not recommend spraying for either larvae or adult mosquitoes. Because of possible resulting toxins, which are likely to provoke respiratory illnesses, the costs would outweigh the benefits, Lantry said.

West Nile virus first appeared in the U.S. in 1999, when seven people in New York City died from the infection. The first sign of the virus in Michigan was discovered last summer. In the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the virus is common.

"It is a suspicion that an infected bird, human or mosquito somehow found its way to JFK airport," Wilson said. "It is difficult to find the root of the problem when the only concrete evidence you have is the virus itself. There is really no way of knowing."

Dead birds carrying the virus have been found in 49 of the 83 counties in Michigan. Crows have been found to be the most common carrier of the virus in the state. More than 300 dead crows were found in Royal Oak last week.

Wilson said that it will not take long for the virus to spread throughout the entire country. According to the CDC, all but seven states have reported human or animal cases of West Nile virus.

"It's likely spread throughout North, Central and South America within the next five to 10 years. There have already been reports about it in Canada."

Complete eradication of the virus, even solely from the U.S., is highly improbable, Wilson said.

"I would say that it is here to stay," he said.

Sixty-six-year-old East Lansing resident James Peck said he is not concerned about the virus.

"I think the situation has been blown-up by the media. The chances are so small, but I just don't know."