WASHINGTON – Maryland health officials say they are keeping close watch on the West Nile virus, which has killed four people in New York and could be carried here by migrating crows.
“There is certainly some increased concern here that the birds would migrate from New York with the virus,” said Dale Rohn, chief of the state health department’s Division of Communicable Disease Surveillance.
At this point, however, state officials are not doing anything but keeping an eye on the progress of the disease. No cases of West Nile fever have been reported outside the New York area, where four have been killed and 43 people have tested positive for the virus this month.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is closely monitoring New Jersey and Connecticut for signs of the virus, which has been found in some dead birds and mosquitoes in Connecticut.
The West Nile virus can cause encephalitis, a potentially fatal disease, and is transmitted from birds to human beings by mosquitoes. Symptoms include headache, fever and body aches, often with skin rash and swollen lymph glands. More severe infection is marked by headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, occasional convulsions, and paralysis.
In a few cases, the virus can lead to encephalitis. Persons 50 and older are most at risk.
The virus is commonly found in Africa and Asia and had never before been reported in the United States. Currently, there is no vaccine against it, nor any specific therapy for its treatment, according to the CDC.
Maryland officials were already taking extra steps to control the mosquito population in the wake of Hurricane Floyd and said those efforts will continue, whether or not there is evidence of West Nile virus moving toward the state.
After Floyd, the state increased insecticide spraying along the Eastern Shore, said Charles Puffinberger from the Department of Agriculture. That area of the state is where mosquitoes that could transmit the encephalitis virus lived, he said.
So far, there have been no signs of the West Nile virus in the state. Mike Slattery, director of the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Heritage Division, said his agency has not noticed an increase in bird deaths in the state, although it is still early in the migrating season for crows.
Slattery also said it is difficult to predict whether birds, infected or not, might come to Maryland from New York.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also said there have been no cases of mosquito-borne encephalitis reported in the state since 1989. Beth Karp, chief of the department’s division of rabies and vector-borne diseases, said 18 cases of encephalitis have been reported in the state this year, but none of these have been mosquito-borne.
DHMH issued a press release Sept. 21, on the heels of the New York encephalitis outbreak, urging Marylanders to minimize activity that could bring them into contact with mosquitoes, use mosquito repellents and remove standing water from around their homes.