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West Nile takes hold across state

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West Nile virus now has a decisive foothold throughout California, claiming the life of a Santa Ana man and turning up in dead birds in seven Central Valley counties, including Sacramento, health officials said Thursday.

The developments prompted hastily arranged news conferences throughout the state to alert residents to the threat of the disease and how to avoid infection.

In Sacramento County, the West Nile deaths of two Western scrub jays, one crow and one yellow-billed magpie led to immediate mosquito control activities in the community of Wilton in southeast Sacramento County, where area residents discovered the birds.

"West Nile virus has arrived on the Valley floor," said Dr. Glennah Trochet, Sacramento County health officer. "Most of us will not get sick, but we need to know how to protect ourselves and our loved ones."

The Santa Ana man was hospitalized with encephalitis in mid-June and died June 24. Orange County health officials said the man, 57, who was not identified, was at higher risk for a serious complication of West Nile infection because he was over 50 years old and had numerous longterm health conditions.

Why it took so long for the county to announce the man's cause of death was not clear.

Orange County health officials said they sent blood samples to the state Department of Health Services for testing July 15. The tests were completed Wednesday.

The death is the first from West Nile virus since the illness was discovered in California near the Salton Sea last August. West Nile virus appeared for the first time in the United States in New York in 1999.

Sixteen California counties have confirmed cases of the virus. State health officials added Sacramento, Butte, Kings, Mendocino, San Diego, San Joaquin, Tehama and Tulare counties to the list Thursday after dead birds in those areas tested positive for the virus at University of California, Davis, laboratories. The university has tested 214 dead birds; 104 turned up positive for West Nile virus.

To date, 35 Californians have tested positive for the virus, including 20 in San Bernardino County, eight in Los Angeles County, six in Riverside County and the Orange County fatality.

A Sacramento blood donor also tested positive for the virus, but because he is believed to have contracted the virus in Arizona, officials here did not count him as a California case.

Aside from the Orange County death, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported four other deaths from the disease so far this year - in Texas, Iowa and two in Arizona.

"None of this comes as a huge surprise," said Dr. Carol Glaser, acting chief of the state Viral Disease Laboratory. "We have been gearing up for this for several years, and now it's time for the public to pay attention and really avoid mosquito bites."

David Brown, manager of Sacramento Yolo Mosquito Vector Control, said the four dead birds in Wilton triggered his agency to activate a heightened level of response.

The response includes immediate treatment of all known active mosquito larvae, which live in standing water, within a square-mile radius of where the birds were found. So far, he said, no mosquitoes have been found with the virus, but trapping and testing mosquito populations has intensified.

Preventions include draining water where possible, spraying with a biological pesticide, which kills mosquito larvae, and with an insect growth regulator that prevents them from maturing into adults. Also used are mosquito fish, which naturally control mosquito populations in standing water.

Brown said the county also is designing routes for more widespread spraying to kill adult mosquitoes if need be in areas where mosquitoes are most abundant, including residential neighborhoods.

"I don't know if we have infected adult mosquitoes," Brown said. "We would target the adults in the event we find enough of them to require treatment."

He added that his agency has been spraying rice fields and other areas where irrigated farming is common, including in Na-tomas, the Yolo Bypass and Knights Landing.

The virus is spread through the bite of infected mosquitoes. It cannot be spread from casual contact between people. On rare occasions, the virus has been transmitted through human organ transplants, blood transfusions and from a pregnant mother to her fetus.

The developments Thursday also prompted sharp criticism of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed cuts to vector control programs across the state.

"We can expect more serious illness and deaths as the virus spreads throughout California," said Chris Voight, executive director of the Mosquito and Vector Control Association of California. "Most of the time, mosquitoes are simply a nuisance. Now they are deadly carriers."

He said proposed cuts to local control districts of up to 25 percent have already led the agencies to adopt budgets that include cuts to personnel and materials. "They have less money. There is a limit to what they can do at a time when they should be getting more resources."

Trochet emphasized that most people exposed to West Nile virus will not experience any symptoms. About 20 percent of those infected will have only mild to moderate symptoms, and less than 1 percent will develop serious illnesses such as encephalitis or meningitis.

"It's important to know the disease is here," she said. "If you are healthy and young, you probably won't get ill."

There is no treatment for West Nile virus, except for trying to control accompanying high fevers or pain, Trochet said.

Screening of human blood samples for the virus continues at the Sacramento County Public Health Laboratory, where each specimen is tested twice, said Director Sandra Tougaw.

Now that the virus has turned up in birds, Tougaw said she anticipates an increase in requests from physicians to test for the virus. At this point, she said, all tests performed at the county lab will be forwarded to the state for confirmation.

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