With West Nile virus taking hold — and with no vaccine developed to prevent the disease in humans — the new battle cry in mosquito-rich Louisiana is "Fight the Bite."
It's the theme of a $200,000 multimedia campaign by the state, including television spots in which Gov. Mike Foster repeats oft-heard advice: use mosquito repellent, get rid of standing water, stay indoors at dusk and dawn or wear long clothing when going out at those heavy-mosquito hours.
Officials say there's little doubt this week the West Nile epidemic in Louisiana will become the worst in U.S. history, reports Dave Cohen of CBS Radio affiliate WWL-AM in New Orleans. Fifty-eight people have been diagnosed with the mosquito-borne illness. Four of them have died and 34 more cases are pending.
"We have a whole bunch of suspects, so there is no sign that it is going to go down," said state epidemiologist Dr. Raoul Ratard, who will release updated figures this week that are expected to eclipse the 62 people who came down with West Nile in New York in 1999. Seven of those died.
Mosquitoes transmit the illness from infected birds to people. Most people bitten by an infected mosquito will show no ill effects, some will show flu-like symptoms, a few can develop potentially fatal encephalitis.
Foster has declared a state of emergency and is asking federal officials for money to beef up mosquito-killing efforts.
Meanwhile, more than half a dozen states worried about West Nile virus are using climate-based computer models to predict the course of the mosquito-borne disease before a fatal outbreak occurs.
Public health officials usually rely on reports of dead birds as an early warning sign that West Nile is spreading in their region. Scientists say this new method would warn local officials in advance if their counties are at high risk for the virus.
"We look at this as another tool we can potentially use to help us as we try to protect people from catching West Nile," said Bryon Backenson, assistant director of the New York State Health Department's arthropod-borne disease program.
Last year, the state collaborated with NASA and Oxford University to create climate maps based on satellite data to track the virus. Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia have since joined.
In the $504,000 NASA-funded project, state health departments tally the number of dead birds and mosquitoes that test positive for West Nile while NASA satellites pick up weather information like temperature and humidity.
The information is sent to Oxford, which uses a computer program to create "risk maps" showing areas infected with the virus, temperature and vegetable distribution and migratory routes of birds.
State health officials, in turn, will use the maps to warn counties when they are at high risk for West Nile so they can develop a plan to fight mosquitoes and the virus.
"Risk maps will help authorities take charge and control as well as anticipate the disease," said Oxford ecologist David Rogers, who helped create the maps.
Health officials, meanwhile, stress that the disease is relatively easy to prevent. "It's not time for panic," said Dr. Roy Campbell, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist heading up a team researching the virus in Louisiana. "It's time to take precaution."
Louisiana shoppers appeared to be taking heed to the "Fight The Bite" campaign this weekend.
They had snapped up all the mosquito repellent on the grocery shelves of a new Super Wal-Mart outside of New Orleans Saturday night. And a manager at another Wal-Mart in the suburb of Chalmette said she checked Sunday morning to find most brands of repellent sold out.
"I was wondering about it last night," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "I was thinking I need to get some for me."
The hot item at Jefferson Feed Plant and Garden last week wasn't pet food or fertilizer. It was a little doughnut-looking item known as a mosquito dunk, designed to kill mosquito larvae in standing water.
"That's for people with birdbaths and ponds," Kim Robillard, supervisor in the suburban store's garden department, explained Sunday. "We ran out last week."
Corrado Diacona, 34, fishing with his wife and sons on Lake Pontchartrain Sunday morning, had plenty of repellent on hand and said they have been diligent about fighting mosquitoes at home.
"It's definitely changed everyone's modus operandi," said Diacona.
Louisiana's is the earliest outbreak of West Nile since it first hit the nation in 1999.