The virus that causes this fever, called the West Nile Virus was first discovered in the Western hemisphere in 1999. Until then, it had commonly been found in bird, insects and humans in Africa, Eastern Europe, West Asia, and the Middle East. In 1999, 62 cases of severe disease, including 7 deaths, occurred in the New York area. In 2000, 17 cases have been reported through September, including 1 death. Most people infected with the virus only suffer from flu like conditions and authorities believe most cases are so mild that those infected never imagine that they have had the disease that led some people to shut themselves inside their homes during the summer. The disease can be fatal for some older people or those with weakened immune systems. However, it appears that contrary to what was originally believed, the very young are not at high risk.
The virus presents risks to animals as well. It is transmitted by infected mosquitos, and birds and horses are able to contract West Nile Fever as well as humans. Zoos, health officials, and bird lovers are testing both live and dead animals to determine the spread of the virus. Two crows found dead in New Jersey yesterday tested positive for the disease. Already officials are gearing up to increase mosquito controls and virus tracking for this summer. The disease has been found in in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and it is expected to spread south and westward this summer to Florida, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi.
Some people are concerned about the extensive use of pesticides to control the spread of the virus. Last year, some states did massive spraying in areas where the disease was found to exist, but some communities fear that the poisons present more health risks than did the disease. New York, Maryland, and Connecticut are all expecting to cut down on spraying this year.
The control measures are also incredibly expensive. New Jersey plans to spend $4.5 million, including a $2 million federal grant; Pennsylvania has distributed $3.3 million in grants to county West Nile coordinators to cover the costs of equipment, supplies and training. New York, the state with the highest number of West Nile cases, also has the costliest plans to combat the disease. It has applied to the CDC for a $10 million grant to use for surveillance and a public education program. The administration of Gov. George Pataki also intends to offer $22 million in matching grants to the state’s 62 counties and New York City.
Whatever the outcome, we will be hearing more about West Nile fever in the years to come.