Illinois prepares for West Nile virus

Monday, April 1, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- When the potentially deadly West Nile virus began appearing in Illinois last summer, health officials scrambled to inform the public and test dozens of animals killed by the disease.

This year, with the virus likely to spread statewide, they hope to be better prepared.

State health officials last week took part in a planning session organized by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Illinois Public Health Department is asking people, starting in mid-April, to report dead birds so they can be tested. And the state's new testing procedures should reveal whether an animal died from West Nile within a week -- a fraction of the two months it took last year.

"This year, with knowing that West Nile virus is present in Illinois, it will be important for us to be able to test birds and get results back," said Tom Schafer, spokesman for the Public Health Department.

Last year, infected birds showed up in seven counties -- all in northern Illinois except for Crawford County, in east-central Illinois on the Indiana border. The state says it knows of 139 birds and two horses killed by the virus.

"The bird population doesn't understand geographic or political boundaries, and birds do tend to migrate and will spread the disease throughout the United States in a few short years," Schafer said.

Dr. Richard Hull, state veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture, said he expects to see cases spread statewide this summer -- mostly in birds but also in horses "and, heaven forbid, in people."

Form of encephalitis

It is rare for humans to become infected with the virus, but such an infection can result in death. Nine people died from West Nile in the United States last year, according to the CDC.

The disease, a form of encephalitis, can be spread by mosquitoes that bite infected birds and then bite humans. Most infected people do not become seriously ill, suffering only a fever or headache before recovering. The disease is more dangerous in the elderly.

Serious symptoms include rash, swollen nodes, high fever, stiff neck and muscle weakness. If left untreated, the virus can cause coma or death.

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