Steamboat Springs Although West Nile virus has not appeared in Routt County yet, it is just a matter of time. That was the prediction given by the state's leading expert on the dangerous, mosquito-borne illness at a local forum Thursday.
The Western Slope's first fatal equine case was a horse that died in Craig last September. At a public forum Thursday, John Pape, the state Department of Health and Environment epidemiologist who is heading Colorado's investigation into the virus, said residents should expect the virus to pop up in Routt County this summer.
Although West Nile virus has not appeared in Routt County yet, it is just a matter of time. That was the prediction given by the state's leading expert on the dangerous, mosquito-borne illness at a local forum Thursday.
The Craig horse was the second case of the virus on the Western Slope since its arrival in Colorado last year. The first case involved two dead starlings found in Mesa County. Although 20 dead birds from Routt County were submitted to the state lab for analysis last year, none tested positive for the virus.
The disease was first detected in the United States in 1999 during an outbreak in New York City. From its origins on the East Coast, the virus spread quickly west, appearing for the first time in a number of states, including Colorado, last summer.
"We expected it to spread," Pape said. "We just didn't expect it to spread so quickly."
Because of that, county health officials are wasting no time educating the public and formulating a plan to protect residents and their animals against the virus.
Vets urge vaccination
Last year, Routt County veterinarians vaccinated 600 to 800 horses against West Nile virus. Local horse owners were aware of the lethal potential of West Nile virus and wanted to protect their animals, South Routt veterinarian Lou Dequine said.
"There were quite a few people who had a jump on it for the season," he said.
Dequine hopes horse owners take similar measures to ensure their horses do not fall prey to the disease this year.
Veterinarians recommend vaccinations for horses begin in April; beginning in summer is too late.
The vaccine involves a series of two shots administered three to six weeks apart, Dequine said. Full immunization doesn't kick in for another two to four weeks. After the initial vaccination, horses need an annual booster shot to stay protected.
A recently developed equine vaccine was administered for the first time in spring 2002, Routt County Extension Office Director C.J. Mucklow said. Now that the vaccine is widely available, there's no reason for owners not to use it.
"If you care about enough about your horse to have it, then care enough to have it vaccinated," Mucklow said.
Elderly people at risk
The disease affects humans far differently than it affects birds and horses, Pape said.
Many people may get the virus from a mosquito bite and never know it, some will experience flu-like symptoms, a few will encounter serious medical problems and a small number may die, Pape said.
"This is a disease that hits harder the older you are," he said.
Mosquitoes -- infected when they feed on birds with the virus in their blood-- transmit the disease when they bite people or animals.
Public health officials encourage residents to protect themselves. Using mosquito repellent, wearing protective clothing and limiting outside activity during mosquitoes' prime feeding times, at dusk and dawn, all lessen the chances of infection.
There are no human vaccines against West Nile virus.
Officials develop attack
County Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf and other county officials are meeting with the Board of County Commissioners Feb. 24 to outline their plan for dealing with the insect and the disease it carries.
"There's a lot of players in mosquito control," Zopf said. It will take time to organize all those players to effectively combat mosquitoes this summer, he said.
The plan health officials will propose Feb. 24 calls for a three-pronged approach to protecting residents and animals.
An informed public is the first objective.
"A big part of it is education," Zopf said. Thursday's forum with Pape was step toward that goal.
The second and third elements of the plan call for identifying and destroying mosquito habitats and killing mosquito larvae before they develop into potential carriers of the virus.
Zopf said recommendations to the commissioners would include mapping sites where mosquitoes have been found over the years.
More larvae killed early in the season mean fewer mosquitoes to kill in late summer and fall, Pape said.
"It's very much a numbers game," he said.