Wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants, staying indoors as much as possible--these are not habits usually associated with the dog days of August. They might be something to get used to, however. Along with wearing bug spray, these suggestions are often-mentioned precautions to ward off the West Nile virus. As the summer winds down and the mosquito season reaches its peak, the mosquito-borne virus is clearly present in states along the Eastern Seaboard. And experts predict it is here to stay.
"If there was any question at all about it a year ago at this time, and there was little question on our minds that it was here to stay even a year ago, now there's no question," said Stephen Ostroff, M.D., associate director for the National Center for Infectious Disease at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 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.
The 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.
The virus, which has mainly manifested itself in mosquitoes and crows, is centered in the Northeast. It was discovered for the first time in the United States last August in New York City, where it killed seven and sickened 55 others.
The first appearance of West Nile this year was in March. The virus had survived the winter in hibernating mosquitoes in Queens, New York, which was the site of most of last year's cases. The virus has appeared so far this year in only five states --New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Not surprisingly, New York has seen more of the virus than other states. As of Aug. 22, 297 birds, including 6 live ones and 1 sentinel chicken, and 139 mosquito pools in 34 counties have been identified as having the virus. New York is the only state with confirmed human cases--three on Staten Island with no fatalities. While other states have sprayed insecticides from the ground, New York is also the only state that has begun aerial spraying after confirming the virus' appearance.
New Jersey is next in evidence of the virus. So far, 165 birds are confirmed to have West Nile in nine different counties. The Garden State found its first signs of the virus in mosquitos this week. New Jersey has begun ground spraying of insecticides in some counties.
Connecticut has the third largest infestation of the virus. The Constitution State has tallied 86 infected crows. According to the Stamford Advocate , Connecticut does not plan to resume ground spraying because the variety of mosquito found to have the virus there very rarely bites humans. A few areas were sprayed earlier this summer.
Massachusetts has found 20 dead crows, most of them in and around Boston and the adjacent area of Brookline. There has been ground spraying in these areas as a result. Rhode Island had one infected bird turn up last week. Rhode Island began ground-spraying as a result.
While these five are the only states where the virus has resurrected itself, other states in the Northeast are vigilant in watching for it. Ostroff said that based on where the virus has been seen so far, Vermont and Pennsylvania are states that are of concern. They are the only two states bordering New York that have shown no evidence of the virus, but several New York counties where West Nile has been spotted border Vermont and Pennsylvania.