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More Suspected West Nile Deaths

West Nile virus is suspected in the deaths of an 81-year-old man on Long Island and a 65-year-old man in Michigan, health officials said.

If confirmed, the two cases would bring the number of deaths from the disease this year to 18.

So far this year, more than 370 human cases of West Nile have been confirmed in the country's worst out break since the virus first appeared here in 1999. Seven people died in New York that year, and the virus has since spread throughout the East and Midwest.

Officials in Louisiana, the hardest hit state with 171 case and 8 deaths this year, expressed hope Friday that new cases there were tapering off. The 24 new human cases it reported this week is less than half the increase of the week before.

"We may be beginning the end," state Health and Hospitals Secretary David Hood said. But he emphasized, "We still need to keep doing all the things we've done for the last two months."

People have been diagnosed with West Nile in 20 states and the District of Columbia, but nearly 80 percent of the cases this year are in three states: Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday denied requests from Mississippi and Louisiana to fight the virus, saying assistance was best left to health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has given Louisiana $3.4 million and other help.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said he was deeply disturbed by the decision, and noted that FEMA had given New York and New Jersey disaster money during the 1999 outbreak.

"Louisiana is ground zero of this epidemic and we have an emergency on our hands, whether FEMA wants to admit it or not," Breaux said.

In New York, preliminary blood tests indicated that an 81-year-old man from Melville died of the virus on Monday, Suffolk County Health Department spokeswoman Mildred Dinda, said Friday. She said the man had been ill for about 12 days with symptoms consistent with the virus, including muscle pain, a rash and fever.

The Michigan victim died Tuesday after becoming ill about a week ago, and a test indicating that he probably was infected with the mosquito-borne virus was given after his death, according to David R. Johnson, the chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Most people bitten by an infected mosquito never get sick, and most of the rest see only flu-like symptoms. A small percentage of people contract encephalitis, a potentially fatal infection of the brain.

The virus is most dangerous for children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced 16 newly confirmed cases of West Nile virus on Friday, bringing the state's total to 42. Rosemary Seaman, who had a rash before feeling ill, recommended prompt medical attention if anyone experiences an unusual rash.

"I got a rash first, and then I got sick," said Seaman. "So if you break out in a rash definitely go see a doctor and see what's wrong because you don't want it to get worse. You want to catch it before it catches you."

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