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At least four people have fallen ill with West Nile virus infection, federal officials said Tuesday, marking the start of what could be another epidemic year in the USA.
At this time last summer, the same number of people were known to be infected, said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But what concerns officials is that the number of states reporting the virus in mosquitoes, birds and horses is running ahead of last year's rate.
Thirty-two states have reported West Nile so far, compared with 20 in mid-July 2002. In addition, the virus has been found in birds in Delaware, state officials there said.
Three people in Texas and one in South Carolina have fallen ill. A fifth person ill with West Nile symptoms, which include fever, severe headache and muscle aches, is being tested in a third, unnamed state, Gerberding said.
Last year's epidemic of West Nile, a mosquito-borne virus, was the most severe on record. It caused 4,156 serious illnesses and 284 deaths. ''The signs all indicate there's reason to anticipate a problem'' again this year, she said. But she said there was reason for optimism because research on prevention, detection and treatment is moving quickly.
An experimental blood screening test being used by blood banks already has picked up the virus in a donor who had no symptoms of illness, said Jay Epstein of the Food and Drug Administration, and the first rapid diagnostic test for West Nile was approved last week. Though the test is not conclusive -- positive results require more testing to distinguish between West Nile and similar viruses -- ''its availability is considered a major contribution to the fight,'' Epstein said.
Progress is being made on another front in that battle, said James Meegan of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. An experimental West Nile vaccine appears to be safe and effective in animal tests, and testing in humans could begin by the end of the summer, he said. The vaccine, which is made by mixing West Nile virus with the vaccine now used to prevent yellow fever, ''looks like our best bet,'' he said, though other approaches are being investigated.
In addition, Meegan said, researchers have tested about 600 drugs to see whether any are effective against West Nile. So far, 20 to 30 show signs of promise and are being studied further.
''There is an enormous amount of work going on in this area,'' Gerberding said. But ''for right now, the most important message is that people need to be prepared and take steps necessary to prevent exposure'' to mosquitoes and the viruses they carry.
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