Just in case: State prepares for visit from virus

Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2002

In the unlikely event that West Nile Virus reaches Alaska, state health officials met with representatives from other state and federal agencies in Anchorage Tuesday to gather information and establish future protocols.

Members of the state Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks met with epidemiologists from the state Department of Health and Social Services, according to Louisa Castrodale, state epidemiologist, to discuss plans for dealing with the virus, which is spreading westward across the United States.

As of Wednesday, 480 human cases of the virus had been reported in 21 states and the District of Columbia, resulting in 24 deaths. Most of the cases reported were in Louisiana (171), Mississippi (91) and Illinois (71). The virus also is spreading westward across Canada.

In order for the virus to reach Alaska, state epidemiologists say the correct combination of birds, mosquitoes and climatic conditions must occur. Because of Alaska's short summer and mosquito seasons, experts believe any occurrence here is unlikely.

West Nile Virus, which first appeared in North America in 1999, is spread by mosquitoes biting infected birds and then biting animals or humans. The most common methods of tracking the disease are by watching for concentrations of dead birds and by following human cases of the virus.

Most humans infected with the virus suffer only mild illness, according to state health officials. In some cases, however, people may develop fatal encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.

Some experts have questioned whether Alaska has the specific types of mosquitoes known to carry the virus.

"Alaska has 31 different mosquitoes," said Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna.

"One that is a known carrier of West Nile Virus is Aedes canadensis," she said. "However, the virus has not been confirmed from any specimens taken in Alaska."

Other mosquito species known to carry the virus include Aedes vexans, Culex pipiens and Culex restuans, which occur in Alaska, according to state epidemiologists.

Asked if she believed the virus would reach Alaska, Chumley said, "My guess is no.

"It's been showing up in warm, humid areas -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas. It's going to be frozen out up here.

"The important thing is that people need to be aware of mosquito prevention," she said.

"Do the sane things. Particularly, don't leave areas of standing water where mosquitoes can breed."

The Centers for Disease Control also recommends applying insect repellent containing DEET when outdoors, wearing long-sleeved clothing and long pants and remaining indoors during peak mosquito feeding hours from dusk to dawn.

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