Earlier this year, Stateline.org reported that 17 states along the Eastern Seaboard were drawing up plans to monitor and combat mosquitoes that might carry the potentially deadly West Nile virus. Since then, these preparations have spread west, and more money has been allotted to states for their efforts.
States as far west as New Mexico and Arizona have devised plans to fend off the virus, which killed seven people and sickened 55 others in New York last summer. New Hampshire, South Carolina and Indiana are among the latest eastern and midwestern states to put West Nile plans in place.
Stephen Ostroff, M.D., associate director for the National Center for Infectious Disease at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that health experts have been concerned for some time about the potential for the West Nile virus to appear in other locales than where it appeared last year.
"It's already demonstrated the ability to show up places you wouldn't expect. Who knows what will happen in the coming months?" Ostroff said.
Experts say the public should not be unduly alarmed, however. They note that the threat posed by the virus is infinitesimal compared with a disease like influenza -- the flu -- which kills thousands each year.
The CDC had previously awarded grants totaling $2.7 million to 17 states along the Eastern Seaboard and two cities, Washington, D.C. and New York City. On May 25, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala announced that the Clinton administration would provide an additional $5 million for states and local communities to monitor for signs of the virus.
Funneled through the CDC, $1.4 million of the new allotment will be available to the same 17 states and two cities for further efforts to monitor and track the virus. Those states are: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Another $3.1 million of the new funds is available for the remaining 31 contiguous states to track and test for West Nile.
Ostroff said that while it's up to the 31 states being offered assistance for the first time to decide to prepare for West Nile, it would fall to federal agencies to test for the virus if those states weren't ready with labs and equipment of their own.
"We simply can't be doing [testing] for the entire rest of the country ourselves. We do want there to be national coverage," he said.
West Nile virus causes encephalitis (a swelling of the brain). It is carried by birds and transmitted by common house mosquitoes (Culex pipiens) that have bitten an infected bird. People catch the virus only from a mosquito, not from a bird or another person. West Nile virus is typically not life-threatening for humans -- it is possible for a person to become infected with the virus and never experience any of the flu-like symptoms that accompany it. However, it is dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, particularly the elderly and the very young, because there is no vaccine for it and no cure.
Before it struck New York City last August, the West Nile virus had never been seen before in the Western Hemisphere.
Ostroff said there have been no new findings of the virus West Nile outside of strains found in some hibernating mosquitoes in Queens, New York in March. Testing for the virus has occurred as far south as Florida and as far west as New Mexico, he said.