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West Nile virus outbreak kills 4

Louisiana declares a state of emergency in an attempt to combat the disease, which officials fear will spread.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 3, 2002

The West Nile virus has killed four Louisiana residents and infected 58 others in the second-worst outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease in the country, state health officials said Friday.

Gov. Mike Foster declared a state of emergency Friday in a move to get $3-million to $5-million in federal aid to combat the outbreak.

"There is no sign that this is going to go down. This is only the beginning," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, an epidemiologist with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. "We'll probably end up with the worst outbreak."

The Louisiana victims were three men, ages 53 to 75, and an 83-year-old woman, all of whom died in the past few weeks, state health officials said. Twelve people remained hospitalized, four in intensive care.

After an initial outbreak in southeastern Louisiana in June, the virus has now spread to New Orleans in the far southeast, the Lake Charles area in southwestern Louisiana and the Monroe area in the northeast.

In Baton Rouge and New Orleans, dozens of trucks loaded with pesticide are spraying day and night to kill the virus-carrying mosquitoes.

Teams of entomologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have descended on St. Tammany Parish, northeast of New Orleans, to investigate.

"The scary thing is, this started so early," said Charlie Anderson, Louisiana's West Nile virus coordinator. "We ordinarily look at the season beginning in August. There are a whole lot of unanswered questions."

The virus infects numerous types of wild birds, from house sparrows to crows. Mosquitoes spread it among birds, and then to people. A spate of dead birds can be an early warning that the virus is circulating in a certain spot.

Infected humans can develop flulike symptoms and, in some cases, encephalitis or a fatal swelling of the brain. The majority of infected people don't get sick at all, Anderson said.

First discovered in the West Nile district of Uganda in 1937, the virus has spread to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America. In 1999, West Nile's first year in this country, the virus' worst outbreak to date caused 62 cases of severe disease and seven deaths in New York state.

Since then, it has spread to the District of Columbia and 34 states, including Florida. Before the newly announced deaths, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed 185 human cases and 18 deaths.

The virus has been found as far west as South Dakota, and migrating birds will likely carry it to California this year or next, according to the CDC, which noted that West Nile made its earliest appearance ever this year.

St. Tammany mosquito abatement control district director Charles Palmisano said every acre of the parish is being sprayed with three times the usual amount of pesticide. "It's not like we have hordes of mosquitoes," Palmisano said. "In fact, the mosquitoes are very low now. The question is, how low do we have to get to prevent human involvement?"

Dr. Roy Campbell, a CDC epidemiologist, said Louisiana residents are not necessarily at greater risk because of the state's bayous and other mosquito-breeding terrain. The severity of the outbreak depends on the species of mosquito, the climate and other factors, he said.

Mosquito experts are worried a second species of mosquito may be creating a round-the-clock West Nile threat in Texas and Louisiana.

The Culex mosquito, which bites at night, is the primary culprit in spreading the virus. However, there are hints the aggressive, daytime-biting Asian tiger mosquito is transmitting the disease as well.

Matt Yates, director of East Baton Rouge Parish Mosquito and Rodent Control, said he has no hard evidence -- no Asian tiger mosquitoes testing positive for West Nile -- but finds the insect in many homes.

In interviews with people sickened by West Nile, Yates learned the patients were outdoors gardening much of the day when the Asian tiger mosquito is active. The mosquito control department captured large numbers of that mosquito in those areas.

"There is no question the Culex is driving the epidemic," Yates said. "There is certainly the possibility there are other mosquitoes transmitting the disease. We don't want people to think they're safe during the day."

Louisiana residents have been asked to drain standing water from mosquito breeding grounds such as birdbaths and ditches, and to protect themselves with long sleeves and mosquito repellent.

The realities of a sweltering Louisiana summer are causing some to rethink that advice.

"You'd put yourself in heat exhaustion with long sleeves in this weather," said Scott Ricca, co-owner of Clegg's Nursery in Baton Rouge. "It's impractical. During the day even if you're wearing mosquito repellent you walk outside and sweat so much it comes off of you anyway. Mosquitoes are a hard thing to fight against."

One of Ricca's elderly customers was one of the first humans infected with the virus in Baton Rouge.

The four Louisiana deaths occurred in the southern half of the state. Most of the elderly victims were weakened by other illnesses before they developed the virus.

Overall, the number of human cases this year has already surpassed the 64 reported last year; 43 were reported in Louisiana and Mississippi on Friday alone.

-- Information from the Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle and Associated Press was used in this report.

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