Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the CDC, said, ”The numbers are starting to change very, very quickly,”
“That is very concerning… It indicates we are starting the epidemic with more cases than last year.”
As of August 7, 2003, there are more than 164 cases in 16 states, Gerberding said. Those numbers compare with 112 cases in four states for this date last year.
In 2002, the U.S. reported 4,156 human cases of the disease and 284 deaths. America also suffered the largest reported outbreak of West Nile encephalitis in the world in 2002.
Most people who are infected with the virus do not develop encephalitis or any visible symptoms. The CDC said about a fifth of those with the virus will develop a fever, headache, body aches and sometimes a rash and swollen lymph glands.
West Nile virus rarely kills, but about 1 in 150 people who get it will develop potentially deadly encephalitis or meningitis. In 2003, there have been four deaths due to the virus.
Symptoms for West Nile encephalitis or meningitis include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation and sometimes paralysis.
In Colorado, the hardest hit state, health officials reported 111 cases and four deaths due to West Nile. The CDC, however, has positively linked only 72 of the cases and one of the deaths to the virus.
Gerberding said the virus’ march westward was expected, and officials predict the mosquito-borne disease will spread to every state in the coming months. However, “I can’t predict what will happen in Colorado, nor can I completely explain why it is happening,” Gerberding said.
Since West Nile first entered this country through New York in 1999, health officials have tried to combat the disease with mosquito spraying, prevention messages and disease detection systems.
Despite public health officials’ best efforts, there is no way to prevent the virus from spreading and no way to predict which areas it will strike hardest, said Dr. Sue Montgomery of the CDC.
The CDC recommends that people protect themselves by draining mosquito-breeding areas, such as puddles of standing water, in their yards and wearing protective clothing and insect repellents containing DEET when outside.
U.S. health officials have also been concerned with the virus’ ability to spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
The Food and Drug Administration in cooperation with blood banks, laboratories and drug manufacturers has spearheaded development of new screening tests designed to keep the virus out of the blood supply.