ANNAPOLIS – It’s inevitable: West Nile virus will return to Maryland this summer, but the impact on humans should be minimal, state officials say.
“I think if people are smart about it there shouldn’t be any major problems,” said Joey Scalette, director of state disease surveillance. “Quite frankly, there’s a lot worse things you could get . . . the threat is if you’re over 50 years old.”
West Nile was first discovered in the United States in encephalitis cases in New York City in 1999, when it killed seven people. Fear then struck Maryland when dead crows killed by the virus showed up in the state – one in 1999 and 48 in 2000. Mosquitoes carry the disease from the infected birds to humans.
Since 1999, there have been 79 cases of the disease and eight deaths in the United States, but none in Maryland.
In response to the outbreak last year, the state created a hotline for people to report dead birds. It is expanding the service this year to provide up-to-date information on where the virus has been found and what people can do to avoid the disease.
“We’ll know long before we have a human case if we have West Nile Virus (in the state),” Scalette said.
The state expects an increase in reported cases of the virus, but part of that is due to improved reporting mechanisms, Scalette said.
Despite the potential increase, the state is not overly worried about the threat of a major outbreak among humans.
“You can avoid human conditions very easily by reducing contact with mosquitoes,” Scalette said.
Most people are able to fend off the disease even if an infected mosquito bites them, said J.B. Hanson, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesman. It isn’t as dangerous as the more common pneumonia, he said.
“Usually, West Nile virus hits people whose immune system is compromised, such as the old or the young,” Hanson said. “In light of the fact that we’ve only had eight deaths (nationwide), that shows you it’s not a major outbreak kind of thing.”
Symptoms of serious cases of the virus include fever, stiff neck, confusion and limb paralysis.
The state has not begun any preemptive measures to stem the disease other than routine spraying.
Every year, beginning in late March, the Department of Agriculture sprays low-lying areas with BTI, an insecticide, by airplane. However, if dead birds are found, the department will spray within a mile radius.
One thing the state is doing to prevent an outbreak is ask people to empty all outdoor water containers before the summer to keep the mosquito population down. Pools of standing water are breeding grounds for the insects.