- It was the news that researchers were dreading. A dead
red-tailed hawk, found in Bronxville, a suburb of New York, was last week
found to be carrying the fatal West Nile virus that terrorised the city
last year. Now the entire East and Gulf coasts of the United States are
braced for the imminent return of a mysterious killer which may strike
with enhanced ferocity.
- 'It's time. The virus is out there,' said pathologist
Ward Stone as he emerged from a sealed laboratory where he had examined
the hawk. West Nile encephalitis's first dramatic appearance in the Western
hemisphere - in a cluster of cases in Queens, New York - sent the city
into a frenzy in August. Helicopters sprayed entire neighbourhoods with
disinfectant after the disease killed horses, thousands of birds and several
people. Symptoms began with flu-like shivers and were followed by fever,
disorientation and brain swelling that led to death in seven out of the
62 cases of people affected by the virus.
- Scientists at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in
Atlanta, Georgia, had hoped the illness - spread by mosquitoes from birds
to humans - would die out over winter. Now their hopes have been dashed.
Apart from the hawk, mosquitoes hibernating in underground rooms beneath
the historic Fort Totten district of Queens have been found to be virus-positive.
As America's East Coast begins to warm, mosquitoes carrying the West Nile
killer are expected to spread further than last year. As Nicholas Kramer
of the CDC said: 'The virus is still here and there is a good chance it
will amplify this summer.'
- Warning circulars have been posted to all New York doctors
and emergency instructions for citizens are being drafted, while it has
been decreed that all dead birds must be handed in to health authorities.
This weekend a sad stream of dead birds was being directed to New York
state pathology laboratories.
- What really alarms American health officials is the danger
of the disease establishing itself permanently in the country. But what
will happen if migrating birds have already begun to spread West Nile
across eastern America? The next months will be the 'test of how long-lasting
or fleeting' West Nile is in the US, said Dr Roger Nasei, of the CDC.
- Californian expert Ian Lipkin said last week 'there is
definitely a cause for concern'. But his fears were countered by CDC expert
Duane Gubler, who said it was still possible this year's outbreak could
be contained. The species of mosquito most closely linked to the virus
does not emerge until later in the spring when a mass spraying campaign
- The aim will be to eliminate larvae and breeding sites.
Property owners will be told to unclog roof gutters, empty or chlorinate
swimming pools, and throw away old tyres and buckets.
- A more worrying prospect has been raised by virologists
in Britain. West Nile disease is closely related to the illness St Louis
encephalitis, which is fairly common in America. That raises the fear that
people already infected with the latter may become especially vulnerable
to West Nile disease.
- 'There is a process called antibody dependent enhancement,'
said Dr Ernie Gould, deputy director of the Institute of Virology and Environmental
Microbiology in Oxford. 'We have observed it in other diseases, and I believe
it could happen with West Nile.'
- In short, America faces the threat of a deadly new epidemic.
The next few months will determine how serious that danger is.
- SIGHTINGS HOMEPAGE
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