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Experts urge precautions for West Nile

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West Nile virus has been detected in every county in California but two, according to the latest update from the state Department of Health Services.

Although no infected birds, mosquitoes or animals have been found in Del Norte or San Benito counties, Californians should assume that the virus is everywhere in the state and protect themselves accordingly, department spokeswoman Lea Brooks said Friday.

West Nile virus, which kills some people and infects others without producing symptoms at all, is spread chiefly through the bite of infected mosquitoes.

To date, 430 Californians have tested positive for the virus. Eleven have died, all Southern Californians.

The virus also has infected 199 horses, killing 92. Horses and birds are especially vulnerable to the disease.

The state also announced Friday that it has received nearly $442,000 more in federal assistance to combat West Nile virus. That's in addition to about $1 million the federal government gave earlier this year.

The state allocated $977,000 in its 2004-05 budget specifically for fighting West Nile virus.

The supplemental funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be used to support laboratory testing for the virus, adding staff to handle calls at the West Nile virus hotline and expanding public-education efforts.

Here are answers to questions about West Nile virus recently posed by Bee readers:

Question: If you get bitten by an infected mosquito but don't show symptoms of the disease, does your body become immune?

Answer: Yes. "Most experts believe that once you have immunity to West Nile virus, it's (for a) lifetime," said Dr. Carol Glaser, chief of the viral disease laboratory at the state Department of Health Services.

The only exception, Glaser added, would be someone who becomes severely immunosuppressed later in life.

Q: My daughter was very sick with symptoms consistent with West Nile virus last summer after camping in Yellowstone National Park. However, she was not tested for the virus. Is it possible to detect antibodies to West Nile virus a year after exposure?

A: Yes. "It is possible to test and say that she has been infected at some point in her life with either West Nile or a related virus," Glaser said. However, Glaser doesn't recommend seeking such a test simply out of curiosity.

Q: Does the site of a mosquito bite itself need to show infection to indicate an infection by West Nile virus?

A: Not at all. Glaser said local infections of mosquito bites usually are bacterial rather than viral. The incubation period for West Nile virus can last a week or so, which means mosquito bites often are long gone before a person experiences symptoms of West Nile virus infection.

Q: Should you see your doctor if you feel feverish or achy a few days or so after being bitten by a mosquito?

A: Not necessarily. If you feel sick enough to visit or call your doctor, you should - regardless of whether you suspect West Nile virus, Glaser said. If your symptoms don't warrant a doctor's help, it's not necessary to consult your physician simply because you think you might have West Nile virus.

Q: Do bites from mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus itch more than bites from uninfected mosquitoes?

A: As far as anyone knows, there's no relationship between the itch caused by a mosquito's bite and that mosquito's potential for transmitting the virus.

Q: Since birds carry West Nile virus, am I increasing my risk of becoming ill by keeping a bird feeder in my yard?

A: There's no evidence that birds transmit the virus directly to humans. "The single most important thing you can do in your back yard is to check and see that you don't have standing water in flower pots," said Walter Boyce, director of the University of California, Davis, Center for Wildlife Health. "Feed the birds, don't grow mosquitoes."

Also, if you have a bird bath, change the water frequently.

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