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Whatever happened to West Nile virus?

As summer winds down, it's time once again to participate in the interesting nationwide medical experiment called "Whither West Nile virus?"

You remember WNV, if I may use the acronym. A virus carried by various mosquitoes, it can, when transmitted to birds or animals through a bite, cause flu-like symptoms, which in rare cases can cause inflammation of the brain and be fatal.

WNV showed up here in 2001 as part of its spread from New York City, where it cropped up in 1999 after arriving in the guts of a mosquito carried by international shipping or air travel.

New Hampshire medical officials, and us media folks, went into overdrive When the first New Hampshire human cases were diagnosed in 2003 we really freaked out. It seemed like a new peril was descending on our summers; WNV became a big part of my reporting beat.

And then it pretty much went away.

Starting in 2004, cases in birds, animals and dusters, or "pools," of mosquitoes declined throughout the Northeast even as WNV spread south and west.

New Hampshire has never had another human case and hasn't tested dead birds for several years because so little virus was being found. In 2009, we were the only state in the nation that reported no findings of WNV anywhere.

Beth Daly, epidemiologist at the state Department of Health and Human Services, cautions against reading too much into that negative result, since most of New Hampshire's positive findings have come from dead birds. The lack of avian testing could hide some WNV in our midst.

Still, throughout the country, that pattern was repeated; WNV shows up in a state and its numbers soar, then slowly decline.

Why? The disease is so new, and is dependent on so many factors, that nobody really knows.

Health officials don't talk much about the decline of WNV because they're afraid of inducing complacency.

West Nile had the beneficial effect of focusing public attention on mosquito control, an overlooked topic, particularly in northern climates that lack a history of malaria or other widespread bug-borne dangers.

With Eastern Equine Encephalitis still around--another nasty mosquito-borne disease--and the possibility that climate change will bring us more arboviruses (viruses spread by biting critters) that are currently limited to warm-weather areas, public health officials don't want us to think they're blowing the mosquito all-clear. We still need to empty standing water out of wheelbarrows and kiddie pools, wear bug spray and long pants at dusk, and generally be sensible.

Still, I'll go out on a limb here and predict that no West Nile virus will be found in any mosquito pools in New Hampshire this year. Keep your fingers crossed.

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Title Annotation:HEALTH
Author:Brooks, David
Publication:New Hampshire Business Review
Geographic Code:1U1NH
Date:Aug 27, 2010
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