After months of detecting the West Nile virus in dead birds and mosquitoes, state health officials yesterday reported Ohio's first probable human cases in a young man from Columbus and an elderly Cleveland-area woman.
The Columbus case involves a 26-year-old man who spent a considerable amount of time outdoors. He was hospitalized for four days at the Ohio State University Medical Center but now is doing well and has been released, state health officials said.
The 76-year-old woman from Brook Park, Ohio, is in stable condition in Southwest General Health Center in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, according to B.J. Meder, director of the division of environmental health for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.
State health officials would not disclose the names of the man or the woman but said it is no surprise that Ohioans eventually would contract the illness that has been sweeping across the country since it first appeared in the United States three years ago in New York.
“This is not unexpected,” said Dr. J. Nick Baird, director of the Ohio Department of Health. “We knew we'd have human cases. It was just a matter of when.”
The virus is spread by mosquitoes that feed on infected migratory birds and animals. Less than 1 percent of those bitten by an infected mosquito will develop a serious illness, and most people who contract West Nile suffer flulike symptoms at worst.
But in the elderly and others with weak immune systems, the virus can lead to fatal encephalitis, or brain inflammation. There is no vaccine to prevent the disease in people, and the CDC has reported nine deaths this year as a result of it - seven of them in Louisiana, where 85 people have contracted the virus.
The virus was first found in Ohio in July, 2001. Since then more than 450 dead birds in Ohio have tested positive, so many that state officials recently stopped testing those in counties that already have several confirmed cases.
Michigan has stopped testing for counties with more than one infected bird.
Officials continue, however, to examine samples of mosquitoes, considered a more accurate way of pinpointing West Nile virus hot spots because the insects do not travel as far as birds.
“The dead birds just tell us that there's activity in the area but not how much,” said Robert A. Restifo, a medical entomologist with the Ohio Department of Health. “By testing the mosquitoes, we get a better idea of the activity level.”
Most Ohio counties - including Lucas, Allen, Hancock, and Huron - have confirmed the virus in mosquito pools, as opposed to none in Michigan, according to officials. Two horses in Ohio have tested positive.
A local health official said strategies to deal with West Nile virus will not change even if Ohio's human cases are confirmed.
“It's been a concern for a couple of years,” said Mike Oricko, director of environmental health for the Toledo-Lucas County health department. “Since it moved into our area, we have been taking quite a few steps to try and deal with the problem.”
In addition to mosquito testing and spraying by governmental agencies, it is vitally important that residents do their part to prevent the spread of the virus, he said.
This includes eliminating sources of standing water, such as old tires or clogged gutters, where mosquitoes can breed. It also is important to avoid exposure to the insects by using insect repellent, wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts when outdoors around dusk or dawn, and making sure that screens are in good condition.