Health officials still wary of West Nile virus

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— Although West Nile Virus is spreading quickly through Colorado's Front Range and Eastern Plains, it has not yet infected people in the Western Slope.

Mike Zopf, director of Routt County's Department of Environment and Public Health, said eight birds have been tested this summer, and none showed signs of the disease.

"We have not seen West Nile Virus in the mountains," Zopf said. But, he said it still could happene.

"It wouldn't surprise me (to see it show up in Routt County) because we've had the dramatic increase statewide," he said.

Zopf is encouraging residents to report dead birds that might be infected to the environmental health department. Species that are susceptible include magpies, ravens, jays and crows, and other similar species in the corvid family. Testing birds serves as a surveillance system, letting officials know whether the disease has entered a certain area.

A total of 28 cases of human infection were reported in Colorado's Front Range and Eastern Plains last Wednesday. That number has risen to about 60, Zopf said.

Only two horses have tested positive for the disease in the Western Slope this summer, one each in La Plata and Montezuma counties.

Although the disease has not yet been seen in the area, Zopf recommends residents take measures to prevent infection.

"People still need to remain vigilant and wear mosquito protection," he said.

All residents should wear an insect repellant containing DEET when they're outside, as well as long pants and long-sleeved shirts, especially at dawn and dusk, the prime feeding times for mosquitoes.

Residents also should get rid of any pools of standing water that might attract the bugs, and should be sure that screen windows are working to prevent mosquitoes from getting indoors.

"The good news is that this is an entirely preventable disease," Zopf said. If residents take recommended precautions, it's unlikely that they'll get infected.

People over the age of 50 should be especially careful as older people can become sicker than young people if they contract the disease and can even die.

"While the message is that this is entirely preventable, it can be serious in some cases, especially for males over 50 years," Zopf said.

Of every five people infected, only one will have symptoms of the virus, which include headache, muscle aches and rash. Some people may also have nausea and vomiting. Only one out of every 150 infected will develop severe neurological disease.

West Nile Virus first appeared in Colorado in August 2002. Last year, 14 people contracted the disease in the state, all of whom recovered or are recovering, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of 380 horses that tested positive for the disease, 93 died.

There was one report of an infected horse in Moffat County last year.

The county received a grant to track the number of type of mosquitoes in the county to determine whether mosquitoes that are likely to carry the virus are present in large numbers.

Work on this database will begin in 2004.

For more information, go to www.fightthebitecolorado.com


-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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