Pull out the bug spray: West Nile virus is beginning its summertime assault.
Infected mosquitoes are known to be buzzing in 16 states so far, and five people nationwide are already battling the illness most severe form. Scientists fear the rubble-strewn Gulf Coast in particular is ripe for a bad outbreak.
In northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, mosquito control officials fear recent heavy rains will likely mean a bumper crop of mosquitoes.
How bad West Nile will be this year will be depends on the weather. Anywhere that s especially hot and dry should watch out.
It also depends on birds robins and house sparrows, to be exact. Forget the dying crows that became notorious in West Nile s early days. How mosquitoes feed on these smaller backyard birds seems more important in determining how much virus circulates in communities especially in July and August, the disease s worst months.
West Nile has infected a surprising 1.2 million to 1.3 million people in the United States in just the seven years since it first struck the nation, estimates Dr. Lyle Petersen of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country s leading West Nile specialist.
Most people didn t know it: About one in five people develop symptoms, and fewer get the life-threatening disease. Still, West Nile has killed almost 800 people in the U.S. in that brief period, and caused severe neurologic illness, meningitis or encephalitis, in more than 8,300.
In 2002, Ohio and Michigan respectively had the second and third-highest number of West Nile virus cases in the country. The virus infected 441 Ohioans, killing 31. In Michigan, there were 614 cases and 51 deaths. Last year, there were 58 cases of West Nile virus in Ohio but no fatalities. Lucas County had four cases. Michigan had 62 cases and four deaths.
Some who become infected with the virus are left with polio-like paralysis.
Even the less severe West Nile fever is really quite a horrible kind of illness, says Dr. Petersen. He caught the disease himself in 2003 spending a week in bed and a month afterward battling bone-deep fatigue and he worries that people don t take the threat seriously enough.
I guarantee it ll ruin your summer.
Scientists can t predict where the virus will strike each year, but recent research shows:
Since it emerged in New York City in 1999, West Nile virus has spread from coast to coast. Only Maine and Washington have diagnosed no ill people yet, despite finding the virus in mosquitoes and other animals in summers past.
Already this year, doctors are reporting the neurologic form of West Nile in five people in California, Colorado, Mississippi and Texas. All donated blood is tested for West Nile, to prevent transfusions from symptom-free but infected people, and the CDC hopes those tests will also act as an early warning signal of impending outbreaks - in addition to mosquito testing that has uncovered infection in 16 states and counting.
Older people and organ transplant recipients are most at risk of life-threatening disease, while, mysteriously, the polio-like muscle weakness tends to strike people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
But the sad truth is that West Nile can strike anyone, and there's no vaccine yet. Hence the CDC wants people to use mosquito repellents as routinely as they do seat belts, so they'll be covered wherever and whenever the virus pops up. The best advice:
Blade staff writer Luke Shockman contributed to this story.