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West Nile virus heading west

These crows resting on a Langley rooftop are at much greater risk from the West Nile virus than are the people walking below them. Island County health officials say the virus is not in Washington. - Matt Johnson
These crows resting on a Langley rooftop are at much greater risk from the West Nile virus than are the people walking below them. Island County health officials say the virus is not in Washington.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

The West Nile virus is heading west on the "wings" of mosquitos, but Island County Health officials say it will be at least a year before blood-sucking insects carrying the virus begin biting South Whidbey residents.

"It is not a matter of if the virus will get here, more a matter of when," said Roger Case, health officer for the Island County Health Department.

With the virus making inroads in Washington this year, Case said the disease is on its way. Often fatal to birds and occasionally fatal to humans, West Nile's arrival will not be welcome, but it is expected.

"We expect to see it in a year or so," Case said. "So far the virus is found in 35 states -- all east of the Rocky Mountains."

Whenever it does reach the island, health officials will be ready and waiting to deal with it.

"Thankfully we don't have to deal with it now," Case said.

County health officials met this week to decide on a plan of action to deal with the virus when it arrives on Whidbey Island. Case said controlling the mosquito population is the most common way of fighting the West Nile virus, since the insects spread the virus to humans after biting infected birds.

Doing this will probably require spraying pesticides to kill the insects and working to reduce the number of mosquito breeding areas. Both are methods the health department will consider.

Case is already inviting the public to help. By eliminating the stagnant water mosquitos use for breeding, such as backyard ponds and bird baths, people can put a dent in the insect's population. He recommended that homeowners stock landscape ponds with goldfish, which eat the mosquitos, and create nesting areas for mosquito-eating birds.

West Nile virus is named after a river in Uganda where it was first identified as a health issue in 1937. One of the first signs that the virus is in an area is a bird kill-off, affecting crows, ravens and magpies in particular. While most birds infected by the disease do not die, they pass the virus to mosquitos, which in turn pass it onto other birds and people.

Fortunately, West Nile is not often harmful to humans.

"Most people who become infected with the virus have either no symptoms or only mild ones," Case said.

To determine the presence of the virus, health department officials do tissue samples on dead birds and test mosquitos. A few reports have come in to county officials this year about dead birds, but Case says there is no need for panic even when the virus reaches the Northwest.

"Chances of being bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus, and then contracting the disease are very slim," he said. "Not every mosquito carries the virus."

On rare occasions, virus infection can result in a sometimes fatal illness known as West Nile encephalitis. Case said only about 1 in 1,000 people who contract West Nile will come down with any symptoms at all. Older people or those with a depressed immune system are the most likely to show symptoms of infection.

The West Nile virus made its first documented appearance in the United States in New York City in 1999, when 69 people were infected with the disease. Seven of those people died from the disease.

According to statistics released on Aug. 9 from the Centers for Disease Control, a total of 135 human cases of West Nile virus have been reported this year in the United States. There have been seven deaths -- all in Louisiana.

For people traveling east of the Rockies in areas where the virus is known to exist, Cases urges people to wear long sleeves and pants during the evening hours when outdoors.

According to information released this month from the CDC there is no documented evidence of person-to-person transmission of West Nile virus.

Community Events, April 2014

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