State to start prevention campaign for West Nile

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 5, 2003

COLUMBUS (AP) - With hot weather and the anticipated return of the West Nile virus not far away, the state is letting people know what they can do to combat the disease.

The Ohio Department of Health this month will start a $400,000 media campaign that includes billboards and television and radio spots aimed at educating the public about the virus and outlining ways to prevent it.

Last year, Ohio ranked third in the nation with 441 confirmed cases of the disease and 31 deaths related to it.

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Illinois had 884 cases and 64 deaths, followed by Michigan, with 614 cases and 51 deaths.

In Ohio, the virus had its greatest effect in Cuyahoga County, which had 211 confirmed cases and 10 deaths. A recent study estimated that 83,000 county residents might have been infected last year.

West Nile is most menacing to the elderly and those with otherwise weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV or diabetes. In 2002, it sickened at least 4,156 Americans and killed 284, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"In terms of number and spread, it was the largest outbreak in the country and in the world of mosquito-borne illness," said Robert Restifo, chief of the vector-borne disease program for the Health Department.

He said the virus was particularly troubling in urban areas because there were more hidden breeding sites.

Swarming through back yards, city streets and parks, mosquitoes carrying West Nile have the potential to infect tens of thousands of people. However, most of those infected will be fight off the disease without knowing it, health officials said.

Researchers continue to discover new things about West Nile, including its ability to cause serious long-term neurological damage in some victims. It also has been passed along through organ donation and blood transfusions.

In addition, it has appeared in more species than anticipated, killing a variety of animals, including several birds in zoos.

There are some forms of protection. Eliminating stagnant water, where mosquitoes are most likely to breed, is helpful. Once the mosquito season begins, repellants, light clothing and long pants and sleeves can serve as protection.

Restifo said the cold winter won't help reduce West Nile rates. Mosquito breeding depends more on spring and summer weather patterns.

There is no cure the virus, but several companies are working to develop a vaccine for humans. A vaccine already has been helpful in protecting horses.