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West Nile Virus Makes Early Arrival This Year

Posted - Feb. 10, 2004 at 3:20 p.m.



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Goodbye flu virus, hello West Nile.

Just as a bitter flu season is ending in Houston, officials have discovered the West Nile virus in a local bird. It is by far the earliest in the season that the virus has appeared in the region.

A dead blue jay found in northwest Houston on Jan. 22 tested positive for West Nile virus, Ray Parsons, head of Harris County's mosquito control division, said Monday. Last year, infected birds were not found until May.

The find indicates the virus has survived through the winter and that Southeast Texas can expect to grapple with the mosquito-borne virus again this summer. It is probably not an indicator of the severity of the problem West Nile will pose this year, Parsons said.

There's really no need for alarm right now,'' he said.We wanted to put this information out because if we find something, we want to let the public know.''

It is unclear why the virus was found in a local bird so early, Parsons said. Other states have found it in birds in January and February, however.

Houston and Harris County reported a combined 45 cases last year, three of which resulted in deaths.

Nationally, 9,122 people were infected with the virus, and 223 people died in 2003. The first U.S. outbreak just five years ago led to 62 cases. A record 284 deaths occurred in 2002, the same year Houston experienced its peak in caseload and mortality, when five people died.

There has never been a human case in the United States before June. In the next week, Parsons said, the county will collect mosquitoes from 50 traps to see if any are infected with the virus. He does not, however, expect to find any infected mosquitoes.

As many as 130 species of birds carry the virus. Mosquitoes become infected and then transmit West Nile to other birds, animals and humans.

Since the virus burst into national prominence in 2002, experts have credited better, more targeted mosquito spraying with controlling the disease.

Last week, at a national West Nile conference in Colorado, scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported promising research. They said mosquito traps in Fort Collins, Colo., which was among the cities hardest hit by the virus last summer, showed decreases of 87 percent and 89 percent in two types of mosquito that carried the virus after sprayings.

Most people who become infected with West Nile show no symptoms or only mild ones such as a low fever. Severe symptoms, such as high fever, stiff neck and muscle weakness, usually occur from five to 15 days after a bite from a virus-carrying mosquito. There is no treatment for West Nile except the management of symptoms. In serious cases a patient is hospitalized and often put on a ventilator.

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(The Houston Chronicle web site is at http://www.chron.com )

c.2004 Houston Chronicle

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