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Officials track mosquito viruses

DENVER – State and local health agencies have begun tracking three mosquito-borne viruses – Western equine encephalitis, St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile virus – by placing sentinel chicken flocks around the state and testing them for the presence of the viruses.

State epidemiologists recommended the West Nile virus be considered a reportable disease. Western equine encephalitis and St. Louis encephalitis already occur in Colorado and are reportable diseases.

John Pape, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, emphasized that, although West Nile virus hasn’t been detected in Colorado, there is no reason to believe it won’t make its way here this year or next.

“We’re on the lookout for West Nile virus,” Pape said. “By making the virus a reportable disease, health care providers throughout the state will be required to report cases of the disease to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. This allows us to conduct surveillance for the virus and to monitor for outbreaks.”

West Nile, a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, is spreading across the country from the East Coast, reaching as far west as the Arkansas and Oklahoma border last year. In 1999, an outbreak was detected in New York City.

Pape said it is unknown how West Nile virus got to this country. Historically, the virus has been found in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

“Because the virus is new to this continent and expanding, we can’t predict what it is going to do. The drought may slow it down, but we expect the virus to reach Colorado,” he said.

Pape said all three viruses can be dangerous. They are maintained in birds and transmitted by mosquitoes. When conditions are right, the virus amplifies in the bird/mosquito cycle and may spread to other animals and humans.

The transmission season for the viruses typically runs from August through early September, although the viruses sometimes can be detected in early July.

Although the odds of infection and serious illness are low and most infections don’t cause illness, Pape said everyone is susceptible, especially the elderly and children.

“People in areas with high concentrations of mosquitoes need to take precautions against mosquito bites,” he said.

Pape said most people infected with West Nile virus, Western equine encephalitis or St. Louis encephalitis will not become ill. For people who do become ill, most develop a flu-like illness five to 15 days following the bite of an infected mosquito.

Symptoms usually include a fever and headache that persists for a few days. In more serious cases, the patient may experience a rapid onset of severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, muscle weakness and disorientation. Full-blown encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, occurs in a very small percentage of persons who are infected, particularly the elderly and those with weak immune systems. This severe disease can lead to permanent brain damage or death. Most deaths have occurred in persons older than 50.


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