First West Nile virus-positive bird found in Northeast Tennessee

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The first bird to test positive for the West Nile virus (WNV) has been discovered in Northeast Tennessee, according to regional health officials.
   The Sullivan County Regional Health Department announced a blue jay found in Washington County had tested positive for the virus that has been blamed for 13 deaths across the nation this year.
   "We've had several tested in our region but this is the only positive test," said Dr. Andrew S. May, regional medical director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department. "It is endemic now in the entire Southeast United States."
   Washington is one of 24 counties in Tennessee where WNV-positive birds have been discovered, according to the Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH).
   The virus has been attributed to 13 deaths in the United States this year, according to the CDC. Eight deaths have been reported in Louisiana, two in Alabama and one in Illinois, Texas and Kentucky.
   Humans are infected with the virus when they are bitten by a certain species of mosquitoes -- usually one of the Culex species known as the urban "house mosquito" -- which have recently bitten a WNV-infected bird, according to the TDOH.
   "Eighty percent of people who get West Nile virus never even know they have it," said May. "Twenty percent who get it are going to get sick with the major danger being the elderly and the young. In those age groups, there is cause for concern.
   "If you develop a severe headache, vomiting, myalgia (muscle pain) and fever, you should be concerned."
   The West Nile virus has been confirmed in animals or humans in 36 states and the District of Columbia during 2002, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.
   On rare occasions, the virus' infection can result in a severe and sometimes fatal illness known as West Nile encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain).
   The most recent death was reported in Frankfort, Ky., when an 84-year-old man whose name was not released, reportedly contacted West Nile encephalitis.
   Health officials agree that mosquitoes' breeding sites share a common denominator: Water.
   "The best prevention is removal of anything that has standing water in a yard," said Jamie Swift, communicable disease director with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department in Johnson City. "Flower pots, buckets ... those need to be emptied regularly to keep mosquitoes from breeding."
   May also said mosquito eradication efforts by cities and towns were only moderately effective at best.
   "If you have a wide swamp area, you can spray and it may do some good, but it is very difficult to get to those micro-environments around the house," he said.
   "When you do fogging through a city, it won't get to water underneath a deck or a house, or in a kiddy pool."
   The best remedy for citizens was elimination of potential mosquito breeding grounds such as flower pots with standing water, water in gutters and abandoned tires, and water beneath the house, said May.
   West Nile virus normally circulates in nature among many species of birds and a few species of mosquitoes with only an occasional transmission to humans and horses.
   The TDOH reported that 184 birds out of 470 birds tested through mid-August had been found to have the virus.
   Jefferson County is the state's only county where a horse has tested positive for the virus. There have been no human cases of WNV reported, according to the TDOH.
   Most birds do not become ill when infected with WNV. However, the TDOH reports that the virus is highly fatal in crows and blue jays.
   "Once we find West Nile is entrenched in an area, we quit testing the birds," said May.
   Swift and May said health departments were continuing to look for blue jays and crows for possible virus presence.
   There is no evidence to suggest that West Nile virus can be spread from person to person or from animal to person, according to health officials.
   State health officials and the CDC recommend the following measures to reduce the risk of mosquito bites:
   * Limit the number of places available for mosquitos to lay their eggs by eliminating standing water sources from around your home.
   * Consider staying indoors at dawn, dusk and in the early evening, which are peak mosquito biting times.
   * Apply insect repellent containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) when you are outdoors.
   * When possible, wear long-sleeved clothes and long pants treated with repellents containing permethrin or DEET since mosquitoes may bite through thin clothing.