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Tracking the West Nile Virus

Wednesday, June 20, 2001 at 8:25 AM

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Public Health departments in Northeast Ohio have had their hands full recently, contending with tainted water wells and outbreaks of meningitis. This week's return of summer brings with it the possibility of another health concern. Officials are preparing for the possibility of a mosquito-borne disease that's heading our way from the East Coast. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports.

David C. Barnett- Frank Kellogg stretches on a pair of inspection gloves as he faces an unpleasant task.

He examines a dead blue jay brought in from a local field…

Frank Kellogg- Blue jays and crows, seem to be more susceptible to dying from the disease, as opposed to other birds which don’t seem to exhibit any symptoms. Blue Jays and crows will fall out of the sky.

DCB- As Lake County’s Director of Environmental Health, Frank Kellogg has been monitoring the health of local birds because they provide clues to the approach of West Nile Virus - a potentially fatal malady, which was first detected in the U.S. two years ago in New York.

FK- They think it came in on an infected bird. Birds fly and they migrate. A mosquito bites an infected bird and then that mosquito goes and bites a human. They think it will be in California in five years.

DCB- Lake, Cuyahoga and many other Ohio counties have started public education campaigns aimed at minimizing mosquito populations. Advice is given for eliminating stagnant pools and puddles where the bugs like to breed. The use of insect repellent is also suggested. But, failing these preventative steps, some stronger measures are being taken .

Laurel Hopwood- There’s been a lot of TV sensationalism that this killer virus is coming into the United States being carried by mosquitoes. And, this is not like a situation with E-Bola, or cholera, where there’s high mortality.

DCB- Laurel Hopwood chairs the Human Health and Environment Committee of the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club. Her professional background as a Registered Nurse has Hopwood concerned about plans to send trucks into selected neighborhoods and spray insecticide into the air.

LH- This is a completely different situation where there are very few mosquitoes that are picking up the virus, very few, and the chance of getting bit by a mosquito carrying the virus is extremely slim, and even more slim is the chance dying from an infected bite.

DCB- In the worst cases, West Nile virus can cause clinical cases of encephalitis, which attacks the brain and spinal cord. The degree of danger depends on the strength of a person’s immune system. The elderly, for instance, are much more susceptible to West Nile than a younger person. But, for Cuyahoga County Environmental Health Director, B.J. Meder - when you’re dealing with brain or spinal disease, it’s always serious.

B.J. Meder- I mean, take for instance the recent meningitis cases that occurred in Stark County. Those numbers weren’t really out of your normal numbers for a given year with a given population. But, it’s a serious disease with a high fatality rate. It’s got to be treated seriously.

DCB- The Sierra Club’s Laurel Hopwood doesn’t question the motives behind Cuyahoga County’s spraying program.

LH- I think this particular county is further along than some other counties in the U.S. But, their intention is to act on the side of caution. If they find a mosquito carrying the infected virus, they would like to go ahead and spray neighborhoods where the mosquito is found. And our line of thinking is: the chance of suffering harm is so slim, in compared to the harm of suffering exposure to these toxic chemicals.

DCB- Hopwood cites a doubling of the asthma rate in the U.S. over the past 15 years. She feels that people, especially children, with respiratory problems would be vulnerable to a nighttime misting of insecticide. B.J. Meder counters that Cuyahoga County’s mosquito program has a long, and safe, track record.

BM- You can call it a mosquito control program. We prefer to call it a disease prevention program. It has been in place in this department since 1975. But, we do prioritize the program. Night spraying - that’s an extremely small part of our program. It’s less than ten percent of the activities that we carry on from about April 1st until mid-October.

DCB- If Cuyahoga County does decide to spray in certain areas, the Board of Health says that it will post 24-hour advance warnings in the Plain Dealer and on it’s website. Residents of other counties can check with local officials about their spraying plans.

Lake County’s program, one of the largest in the state, has been in motion for several weeks. From his vantage point near the Ohio/Pennsylvania line, Frank Kellogg has been closely monitoring the approach of West Nile Virus.

FK- There have been positive birds and mosquitoes in most all of Pennsylvania. There have been a dozen or so positive birds in Erie County, which is just over the border. There have been positive birds and mosquitoes in Chautauqua, N.Y., so, it’s coming this way.

DCB- Kellogg and his peers across the state are left with the job of keeping a balance between the public health risks of disease versus the potential dangers of disease prevention. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.

Additional Information

* Geauga County Health District
* Lake County General Health District
* Centers for Disease Control

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