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    Experts: West Nile, polio are different

    By Times staff writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 26, 2002

    Public health officials are worried about confusion following a government report last week that found the West Nile virus had caused poliolike paralysis in a handful of patients.

    West Nile cannot cause polio, but a recent report by the Associated Press that was published in the St. Petersburg Times did not make that clear.

    Polio is caused by its own virus, and vaccines can prevent it. It has been eradicated in the United States for three decades.

    "It's causing concern in the community," said Julia Gill, the epidemiology program manager for the Pinellas County Health Department. "People are calling, and they're like, 'It causes polio?' And I'm like, 'No.' "

    Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described six recent cases in Mississippi and Louisiana in which West Nile caused weakness or paralysis in the patients' arms or legs.

    In those cases, the virus caused the same type of response from some cells and nerves as polio. The report urges doctors to test patients with paralysis for West Nile.

    West Nile is transmitted by mosquitoes. Experts don't think it can be passed from person to person -- unlike polio.

    In its most severe form, West Nile can cause encephalitis, a swelling of the brain.

    As of Sept. 12, 1,617 people have tested positive for the virus this year, including eight in Florida and 238 in Louisiana. Most suffer flulike symptoms, but 72 have died.

    Thousands more Americans likely have been infected this year but didn't realize they were sick, or mistook the illness as something else.

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