County tries to ease fears of West Nile

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 22, 2002

Alarmed by the spread of the West Nile virus in the state, the county has readied itself to respond to reports of possible infiltration. Despite highly publicized worries about the mosquito-borne epidemic, the virus has a very low probability of causing serious illness. And the county’s chief public health official is calling for a common-sense approach.

The carcass of a blue jay found in the county was collected by the Freeborn County Public Health Department and sent to state authorities for examination. At this moment, the test results have not been reported back.

Public Health Director Lois Ahern said the agency has been vigilant, particularly for dead crows and jays, which are susceptible to the West Nile virus.

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People who find a dead bird can call the department or law enforcement center, but Ahern stressed that only crows and jays are viable indicators of the infection and subject to the test. And, the test needs to be conducted less than 48 hours after the death.

Only birds that fit the criteria of infection are going to be collected by the department. &uot;People should not be disturbed when we are not coming to collect the bird,&uot; Ahern said.

Since July, 128 infected birds, mostly crows, have been found in Minnesota. But there is no evidence that a person can get a virus from touching birds. As long as they are handling the carcass in a way that is usually done for any dead animal, there should be no need to worry about the infection, Ahern said.

The West Nile Virus is carried by mosquitoes, and bites by the blood-sucking insects are the only known cause of human infection.

The virus may cause fever, headache, stiff neck, muscle aches, nausea or vomiting. In severe cases, it can result in brain swelling, called encephalitis, which can lead to seizures, coma or even death.

But, according to the Centers for Disease Control, even in areas where the virus is circulating, very few mosquitoes are infected with the virus. And even if the mosquito is infected, less than one percent of people who become infected will get severely ill.

Besides birds, horses are known to be vulnerable to the virus. Ninety-three infected horses have been found in Minnesota so far. An American Mosquito Control Association survey shows about a third of horse cases are fatal.

There is no vaccine for humans. The most effective preventive measure is to avoid mosquito bites.

Ahern encourages residents not to stay outside during the early morning and at dusk, when mosquitoes are most active. Another tip is to use insect repellent containing DEET, which is proven to provide effective protection. Putting on long sleeves and pants, and keeping away from standing water are also recommended.

The City of Albert Lea has started citywide mosquito spraying, spending $18,357. The operation will last through August.