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West Nile Bites Fairfax County Hard

Fairfax County has highest bird infection rate in Virginia

August 8, 2002

The Fairfax County Health Department decided last week that it will stop collecting dead birds and turn its attention to mosquito control and stopping their breeding. The number of dead crows that have tested positive for the West Nile Virus has risen to 57.

"We have collected and tested a sufficient number of dead birds to confirm the presence of West Nile virus in our bird population,” said Dr. Carol Sharrett, director of the Fairfax County Health Department, in a briefing. "Birds have been collected and tested from nearly every part of the county, indicating that the disease is not confined to a single specific area," she added. The virus, which is transmitted from infected mosquitoes, has run rampant up and down the East Coast since 2000, when it was discovered in the Western Hemisphere. It now is spreading at a blistering pace across America, found as far away as South Dakota.

THE VIRUS, first identified in North Africa, was discovered in this country in New York City, where multiple cases of bird and human infection caught the area off guard. Not soon after, dead birds infected with the virus were found across Maryland, and then Fairfax County. As in New York City, the areas were treated with insecticide in an attempt to control the problem.

The number of cases in Fairfax County has grown dramatically in the past few years. In 2000, when the first cases were discovered, one bird in all of the county tested positive for the virus. It was one of two found in Northern Virginia; the other five found in the state were in central and southern parts of the state.

In 2001, the number of cases skyrocketed. Fifty-four confirmed cases of West Nile were found in Fairfax County alone. Some 147 cases were confirmed in Northern Virginia, more than half of the 215 cases in the state.

So far in 2002, 126 birds tested positive for the virus, but over half of them, 84, came from Northern Virginia alone. Fifty-seven were from Fairfax County, 17 from Alexandria, and 10 from Arlington. Again this year, the first case was found on April 19, four months before the first was found in 2001. This only seems to mean that in years to come, Northern Virginians will have to deal with long summers of pesky mosquitoes and growing cases of West Nile Virus.

The Fairfax County Health Department added that it will begin treatment of storm sewer drains in the Annandale, Springfield and Shirlington area (inside the Beltway, south of Route 7, and north of I-95). "Breeding pools were found in the south Falls Church and Annandale areas, especially along Braddock Road," said Roy Eidem, Fairfax County environmental health specialist. Drains will be treated with a bacteria that, according to Eidem, "changes the pH level in the larvae's stomach, which in turn makes it explode." The bacteria being used is safe to humans and pets, though. "It's not any more harmful than drinking dirty water," said Eidem. Also, all sewer drains within one-half mile of each dead bird found will be treated. Nursing and assisted-living homes in the area, which house those greatest at risk for serious problems resulting from West Nile, have already been treated twice this year.

ALTHOUGH IT MAY SEEM that the virus is a serious problem to Northern Virginians, the effect on people is slight, said Dr. Donald Poretz, an infectious disease physician with Inova Fairfax Hospital. "The chances of getting sick are very small, and if one does get sick, the chances of dying are even smaller." According to Eidem, 53 people in the country were infected with the disease last year, and five died. Poretz added, "The virus is pretty benign in people under 50 or 60." According to Dr. Poretz, most will only develop a rash, similar to a normal mosquito bite. If someone develops a headache or stiff neck, it is possible he has meningitis, and if someone has thought-process changes or noticeably strange behavior, the diagnosis might be encephalitis. In both cases the patient should contact a physician. "I wouldn't go to the emergency room, I'd just contact the family doctor," said Dr. Poretz. He stressed that West Nile is not the only virus that can result in encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes of the brain and spinal cord). "There are other viruses which cause those symptoms that are much worse than West Nile."

HORSE OWNERS in the area should also be on alert for mosquitoes. West Nile kills some 30 percent of horses that are infected with it, and Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), another virus carried by mosquitoes, kills some 90 percent of infected horses. Humans cannot be infected by being around horses with either virus, but they should take proper measures to protect themselves, for there are obviously infected mosquitoes in the area if your horse has fallen ill. "Horse owners should talk to their veterinarian, because there is a vaccine available," said Eidem.

As to whether West Nile is here to stay, Eidem thinks it will be around for many summers to come. "We thought when it first showed up in New York that it wouldn't last the harsh winter there, it did." He added, "It's just going to be another usual thing. Every summer we're going to have to deal with West Nile."

For more information about West Nile virus, or other mosquito-borne viruses that are affecting the area, call the Fairfax County Health Department at 703-246-2300, or visit the Web site at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/service/hd. For information on the disease in horses, call the Office of the State Veterinarian at 804-786-2481.