West Nile virus identified in Ohio

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 3, 2001

A dead blue jay was the tell-tale sign medical and environmental health researchers have been waiting for -West Nile virus has been identified in Ohio.

Friday, August 03, 2001

A dead blue jay was the tell-tale sign medical and environmental health researchers have been waiting for -West Nile virus has been identified in Ohio.

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The virus has been identified in a bird in southern Lake County in Concorde Township. This marks the first confirmed incidence of the disease in Ohio and also marks the furthest west the disease has spread. So far, state health officials said, no case of human infection in Ohio has been identified.

The recent discovery wasn’t a shock to researchers, though.

"This is no surprise. We were expecting West Nile to be found in Ohio this summer," said J. Nick Baird, MD, the director of the Ohio Department of Health.

Until this finding West Nile had only reached the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. Last year, West Nile was located in Erie County, Pa., a county that borders Ohio.

"It’s not very surprising to see the virus continue its spread along the shores of Lake Erie," said Dr. Robert McLean, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.

The USGS was the agency used by the state to confirm the existence of the virus in the blue jay. He added the blue jay was probably infected locally because of the bird’s habits.

"Blue jays are short-distance migrants and they generally stay in the same area during the summer breeding season. So we think the bird was infected nearby."

The virus has spread quickly in the U.S., since the initial outbreak in New York in 1999, the virus has spread across the Eastern Seaboard and along the Appalachian mountain range.

Finding the virus first in a bird is not unusual said the state health department. West Nile virus infection is primarily a wild bird disease. In a previous interview, Jay Carey, a spokesman for the ODH said birds, especially crows, are the primary carriers of West Nile.

The disease cannot be caught by humans by coming in contact with birds, ODH states. Human infection can only occur from a mosquito bite.

Female mosquitoes transfer the disease to humans after they bite an infected bird then bite a human. In March, Carey said the ODH was tracking dead birds found in the state. He said a statewide surveillance program was in place to keep track of the disease.

Literature published by the health department said decreasing bird populations could be the first sign of West Nile Virus in an area.

Information from the state health department also states human to human infection is also not possible. According to ODH, West Nile virus is not spread by person-to-person contact such as touching, kissing, or caring for someone who is infected.

ODH information also added that being bitten by an infected mosquito will not necessarily make an individual sick since most people who are infected with West Nile virus either have no symptoms or experience mild illness. If illness does occur, symptoms would manifest within 5 to 15 days of being bitten by the mosquito carrying the disease.

Mild infections are common and symptoms include fever, headache, and body aches, often with skin rash and swollen lymph glands. Headache, high fever, stiff neck, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, occasional convulsions, and paralysis mark more severe infections.

Some individuals, especially the elderly, receive the full effect of the viral infection. West Nile Virus can cause serious disease that affects brain tissue. At its most serious state, West Nile Virus can cause permanent brain damage and can be fatal. There have been 62 total cases of illness reported in the U.S. including seven deaths from the viral infection. In 2000, there were 17 cases reported and one death. This summer, the virus has been identified in a Florida man, three horses in Florida and hundreds of birds along the East Coast.

"Even in areas where West Nile Virus has been reported," stated a press release from the ODH, "much less than 1-percent of mosquitoes are infected. Less than 1-percent of people bitten by an infected mosquito will become severely ill."

The virus has been documented since 1937 and has taken 64 years to reach the Buckeye state.

An outbreak of the disease first emerged in the West Nile district of Uganda in 1937, infecting an adult female. The virus is now found in Africa, Europe, Middle East, Western and Central Asia, Oceania and in 1999 the virus was found in North America.

To reduce the chance of area residents coming into contact with the virus and slowing the spread of the disease, Carey said people need to make an effort to reduce standing water outside of their homes and neighborhoods.

"People need to rid their area of manmade water containers such as tin cans, buckets, even certain sandbox lid covers because standing water is the breeding ground for mosquitoes," he said. "People often don’t realize the number of mosquitoes that is born in clogged roof gutters."

The state health department also recommends the following: removal of all discarded tires; disposal of tin cans, plastic containers, ceramic pots, or other water holding containers; clean and chlorinate pools, outdoor saunas and hot tubs; change the water in bird bathes at least once a week; turn over plastic wading pools and wheelbarrows when not in use; eliminate all standing water from property; and remind or help neighbors in eliminating potential mosquito breeding sites on their properties.

Carey added, "West Nile is one of the easiest controlled viruses" if people reduce the breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

The state has started a toll-free West Nile Virus information line for general questions from the public. The number is 1-888-411-4142. The number will be answered Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The state health department said questions about mosquito control or to report dead crows or blue jays should be made to the local health department.