California On Alert For West Nile

West nile virus, map of us, mosquito
Californians are spraying pesticide around their homes, calling the kids and dogs in at dusk and replacing ratty old window screens — all prevention methods to combat a scourge the rest of the nation knows only too well: the West Nile virus.

The response to the first two deaths ever in California from the rapidly spreading virus appears to be more prevention than panic, with few reports that the mosquito-borne illness is causing people to cancel outdoor plans or make drastic lifestyle changes.

"We're taking precautions, but you can only do so much," said David Wilson, 61, a neighbor of Morris Sternberg, the 75-year-old man who died Saturday from encephalitis caused by the virus.

As of Wednesday, West Nile had infected 79 people in the state, mostly in Southern California, according to the state Department of Health Services. Last year, there were only three cases statewide and no deaths.

Sternberg, a real estate agent in the small city of Grand Terrace, was the second person in California to die of the illness within a six-week period. Neighbors suspect he was bitten on his front porch, where he often sat in a hammock.

West Nile, which first hit the United States in 1999 in New York, has killed more than 560 people in the United States in the past five years as it marched westward. Last year was the first for the virus to appear in areas west of the Continental Divide.

This year, West Nile has sickened more than 400 people across the nation and resulted in seven deaths, according to data released Wednesday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus killed 262 people in the United States last year, from 9,858 overall cases.

California officials are telling residents what easterners have long done: Avoid mosquitoes by eliminating pools of stagnant water, wear long sleeves if outside at dusk or dawn, and use mosquito repellant that contains the chemical known as DEET.

Many are apparently following the advice. As of Memorial Day, sales of insect repellant were up 17 percent in California over last year, and 9 percent nationally, according to the most recent data available from tracking firm A.C. Nielsen.

West Nile is carried by birds but only transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. About 20 percent of those bitten by an infected insect show flu-like symptoms, and less than 1 percent die from the illness, according to health authorities. There is no approved vaccine or treatment.

State public health officer Richard J. Jackson has warned of a significant West Nile season in California this year. So far at least, the warnings seem to have caused ripples of concern but not much more.

Park agencies throughout California have gotten phone calls with questions about the virus, but officials reported no mass cancellations, perhaps owing to the relative low risk of infection.

"You're more likely to have a bear try to break into your car," said Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.