U.S. Officials Warn of
West Nile Virus Return
By Robert Roy Britt <>
Senior Science Writer

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (Reuters) - Government officials and scientists said on Tuesday they were concerned about a return of the potentially deadly West Nile virus to New York and Connecticut next summer.
The disease, carried by birds and transmitted via mosquito bites, causes flu-like symptoms and sometimes inflammation of the brain. It was blamed for the deaths of seven people in the New York area and hundreds of crows in the northeastern U.S. this past summer and fall.
Dead crows were found as far south as Maryland, but there were no indications people outside the New York City area were affected.
``We were woefully ill-prepared for this epidemic of West Nile virus,'' Durland Fish, assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, testified at a U.S. Senate field hearing on the virus at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.
``The introduction of a foreign insect-borne virus, never before seen in the Western Hemisphere, is a public health threat unprecedented in modern times,'' Fish said. ``It is reminiscent of the introduction of yellow fever and bubonic plague in past centuries.''
Fish said there were three possible outcomes. ``It could simply disappear and represent a kind warning from Mother Nature that there is more to come. It could establish itself and repeat the events of last summer. Or, it could explode into a raging epidemic that spreads far beyond the confines of New York and Connecticut.''
``The experts all agree that the odds are overwhelming it will return next spring, summer, fall -- and there's a lot that we ought to be doing now in preparation for that, to be able to strike at the mosquito population that carry the disease,'' U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, told reporters.
Lieberman, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said there was cause for concern but not panic.
``We ought not to panic, but we have a serious problem,'' he said, adding that while no one in Connecticut died, ``It was an awful close bullet because... New York is just next door.''
Lieberman said he would seek federal funds for research to prevent the return and spread of West Nile, a form of encephalitis seen as particularly dangerous to children and the elderly. _____
West Nile Virus May Be New Deadly Strain, USGS Tells Congress
United States Geological Survey 12-15-99
Recent crow die-offs suggest the West Nile virus which emerged in New York in late August could be more deadly to North American bird species than to species in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, where the virus is normally found, a USGS scientist reported today at a congressional field hearing held in Connecticut by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Dr. Robert G. McLean, director of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., briefed the committee on the role of native bird populations and other wildlife in the emergence of West Nile virus in the United States. Detection of the virus in birds and other animal species provides critical information to public health agencies tracking the infection in people.
"The high mortality in crows and other bird species is unusual for these viruses," McLean said. "This suggests that this virus is more virulent to our native birds or it may represent a new, more virulent strain of the virus."
Resident and migratory birds may play an important role in natural transmission of the virus and in maintaining the virus in the United States, McLean testified. "Migratory birds could also spread the virus to other states outside of the New York City area," he said. "Enhanced monitoring through surveillance for early, rapid detection of West Nile virus in states outside the affected area will be important to guide prevention measures."
The emergence of West Nile virus in the United States, which led to the deaths of seven people from West Nile encephalitis, has brought together the combined expertise and resources of many federal and state agencies along the eastern seaboard. Several federal and state agencies and private groups are searching for stored human and animal specimens that were collected prior to 1999 in order to test them for the presence of West Nile virus. These specimens are also being tested for antibodies to determine if the virus was present in the United States before the 1999 outbreak. Results from these investigations should provide more insight into how, where and when the virus was introduced, McLean noted.
McLean, who received his Ph.D. at Penn State University in 1966, and has 30 years of experience with wildlife diseases, also discussed the activities and efforts of the USGS in investigating the wildlife aspects of this virus. "As of early November, 392 birds have been tested by USGS and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and 192 were positive for West Nile virus," McLean said. "The virus has infected at least 20 species of birds, including exotic and native birds at zoos, and about four species of mosquitoes. But, it is difficult to assess how many birds have died from this disease."
USGS, CDC, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies have heightened wildlife surveillance for detection of West Nile virus, and they have expanded monitoring to other Atlantic and Gulf Coast states. McLean assured the committee, "We are continuing to collaborate on enhanced surveillance and to determine what specific surveillance methods will work best for each region."
McLean believes that native bird populations will play a key role in the investigation of the long-term impacts of the West Nile virus in the United States. He added, "Additional research is needed in order to determine if wildlife, mosquito or both populations in the affected areas can maintain the virus in New York and other states and serve as an over wintering source for resurgence next summer."
For more information on West Nile virus, see the following webpages:
USGS Home Page on West Nile Virus <Link>


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