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Concern Over Spread of West Nile Virus in Southern US - 2002-08-05

Days after an outbreak of the West Nile virus killed four people in the southern U.S. state of Louisiana, health officials in Florida are urging residents to protect themselves against mosquitoes, which transmit the disease.

Dr. Steven Wiersma, State Epidemiologist for Florida's Health Department, says news that 58 people have been infected with the West Nile virus in Louisiana, resulting in four fatalities, is sobering. He says the mosquito-borne disease, which was first detected in New York in 1999, is spreading rapidly in the United States and showing no signs of slowing down.

"It is moving very effectively throughout our continent," he said. "And we do not believe it is going to go away in the near future. We believe it is a problem we are going to be stuck with, so it really needs to fit into our ongoing public health plans."

West Nile virus is harmless to most humans, but can be dangerous, particularly to the elderly or people whose body defense systems have been weakened. Its effects range from flu-like symptoms to, in rare cases, a life-threatening swelling of the brain called encephalitis.

The virus is most-commonly detected in birds, but can be spread to humans by mosquitoes that bite both birds and people. Florida and other states have boosted programs to control mosquito populations, but health officials concede that the pesky insects will never be eradicated.

Therefore, they say, people must protect themselves by avoiding outdoor activities at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active, wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and applying effective insect repellant.

Dr. Wiersma says it is only a matter of time before the United States' neighbors will also be dealing with the disease.

"The Caymans reported the first case of West Nile virus infection in their country last year," he said. "So, we expect it to spread, not only within the U.S. but also to our neighbors, and they are going to have to deal with it."

West Nile virus has been detected in more than 30 U.S. states. In Louisiana, a statewide health emergency has been declared. Officials are seeking federal assistance to boost mosquito eradication programs.