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Don't let West Nile bug you this year

By By James Crawford
News Editor
The coming of Spring brings the sun back into our lives and dreams of lazy afternoons and trips to the beach are at the top of our to do lists. Unfortunately, the warm weather and rains can also bring back the dread of mosquitoes and with them the West Nile Virus.
Last year in Alabama the West Nile Virus affected approximately 46 humans with three of those leading to death; 577 birds; and 88 horses, including at least one in Escambia County, according to data gathered through November of last year by the Alabama Department of Public Health.
The West Nile Virus is most commonly transmitted through a bite from a mosquito. The mosquitoes come into contact with the virus from infected birds and other animals and then pass it along to humans when they land and feed on our own blood. At this point, most scientists say that the virus cannot be transmitted through human to human contact.
The virus first entered the United States in 1999 and has had outbreaks in several areas, including a large outbreak in the northeast, in and around New York. West Nile is a close cousin to the St. Louis encephalitis strain that has caused health problems for Alabamians in previous years but isn't as common as the St. Louis Encephalitis or Eastern Equine Encephalitis, which are both born from viruses transmitted by mosquitoes and have both been found in Alabama for numerous years. It's considered to be very rare to find a human infected with these mosquito-carried viruses, according to the department of public health.
When did it get to Alabama? A little bug history
The West Nile Virus was first spotted in Alabama on Aug. 27, 2001, when it was detected in a dead crow, a dead red-tailed hawk, and two dead blue jays that were submitted for inspection in Jefferson County.
Those first birds died within three weeks of being discovered. By the end of 2001, 59 birds in 13 counties had been diagnosed with West Nile in Alabama. Horses in Mobile County and in Dallas County were diagnosed later in the fall of 2001 and several horses had to be put to sleep here in Escambia last year by Dr. Hank Lee at Lee Veterinary Clinic.
"We had several horses become infected last year. On paper, they tell you that the death rate is between 25-30 percent, but between me and other large animal doctors it's more like 50 percent," said Lee. "Typically when you get an emerging disease it will follow the birth rate and usually it will become a problem and then it will taper off. Last year there were 40 plus horses between Escambia County Alabama and Escambia County Florida. We're expecting another bad year this year. The vaccine is very good. If you keep up with it then you have a 98 percent chance of not getting the virus. That's right on up there with the other vaccines we use. We're recommending that horses be vaccinated every six months. Horses can also benefit from a good repellant. If you use a good fly repellant you should be ok."
What to look for, what to do
Symptoms from West Nile usually appear within 15 days after a person or animal has been bitten by an infected mosquito. The majority of those who become infected with the virus will have no symptoms or will develop only mild flu-like symptoms such as a fever, body aches, a headache or chills and will then recover.
In a small number of cases some people who have become infected developed encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. Particularly the elderly have been most likely to develop the more dangerous symptoms.
At present, no vaccine or antibiotic exists to protect humans against the West Nile virus. In August 2001, a vaccine to help protect horses was conditionally approved by the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
If an illness does occur after a mosquito bite, particularly with fever, confusion, muscle weakness, or severe headaches, or if the eyes become unusually sensitive to light, those infected should consult a physician immediately.
What should I do if West Nile virus is detected in my county/town/neighborhood?
According to the ADPH, the risks of acquiring a mosquito-borne disease are so low that staying indoors is not necessary. However, people should take some simple precautions while outside, such as wearing light-colored and loose-fitting clothing, avoiding wearing fragrances, and applying an insect repellent (containing DEET).
It's turkey season, do I have to worry more than usual?
Hunters should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites, such as applying mosquito repellent to clothing and skin. Hunters should also follow the usual precautions when handling wild animals, including wearing gloves when handling and cleaning animals to prevent blood exposure to bare hands and meat should be cooked thoroughly.
What to do if I find a dead bird?
The Escambia County Health Department will once again be collecting and testing crows, raptors, and blue jays for West Nile Virus. The testing will begin around the first part of May and continue through September. Crows, blue jays, and raptors are the best indicator of the West Nile Virus. Health officials successfully use dead bird reports of those three types to track the spread of the virus. You should contact the county health department if you find any of these dead birds near your home.
How does it affect animals?
Dogs and cats aren't immune to the effects of West Nile. However, most often they won't become ill or die when infected and they don't pose a threat to human if they scratch or bite them. If a household pet does become infected, they will more than likely enjoy a full recovery. To date, only two cats have been listed as becoming terminally ill due to the disease and no dogs.
"We didn't get a case of it at all last year," said Veterinarian Bo Bergloff of the Atmore Animal Hospital. "It's more of a bird disease. Horses and humans are dead-end hosts. And it's not really a dog and cat disease. I don't know of any cases where a dog or cat has been infected yet in Escambia. There's really not much you can do for cats and dogs, but really there's not much to be worried about."
Spray me down! What officials are doing for you
The Escambia County Healthcare Authority in conjunction with the Escambia County Commission has again allotted funding to provide mosquito spraying within Escambia County this year. The program will begin in first part of April.
The Healthcare Authority and the Commission has also purchased 1,600
Altosid Briquets – larvacide briquets – designed to kill mosquito larvae before they hatch.
Residents of Escambia County can come to the Health Department in the satellite offices in Atmore to pick up the briquets, which are being distributed by the Escambia County Health Department in cooperation with the Healthcare Authority and the county commission, free of charge.
"We will begin spraying sometime in the first of April and will rotate around the county throughout the summer. Once we spray an area, we usually get back to it in a couple of weeks, depending on how many calls we get requesting us to spray specific areas. If we get a lot of calls, it will slow our rotation schedule down but we will get to everyone," said Tony Sanks, Escambia County Administer.
For more information on the West Nile Virus contact the Escambia County Health Department at 368-9188.
If you have an area that you would like to request to be sprayed call (251) 867-0208.