In every corner of Louisiana, on the ground and in the air, the war against mosquitoes and the deadly West Nile virus goes on day and night. Experts fear that four deaths and nearly 60 other infected individuals are just the first wave, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara.
"This is only the beginning," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, the state epidemiologist. "We're going to have more and more cases."
The Lousiana victims were three men, ages 53 to 75, and an 83-year-old woman, all of whom died in the past few weeks, state health officials said. Twelve people remained hospitalized, four in intensive care.
Health department workers are doing house-to-house inspections now as the virus reaches epidemic levels.
"We're going to go ahead and declare a state of emergency and see if there's any federal funding to help us thru this mosquito problem that we're having," said Gov. Mike Foster.
Virtually unknown in the United States until a New York City outbreak killed seven people in 1999, West Nile virus has steadily spread each summer. Now detected in 34 states and the District of Columbia, it has claimed 22 lives and infected more than 175 others with its symptoms.
And it experts think it will spread even further. "The contiguous 48 states, I believe that virus will find its way to all of them," said Dr. Roy Campbel of the Centers for Disease Control. "I don't know about Alaska and Hawaii."
Mosquitoes spread the virus from infected birds to humans, who can then develop deadly encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. Most people develop only flu-like symptoms and some don't get sick at all. Humans cannot pass the virus.
The virus is named after the West Nile district in Uganda, where it was first discovered in 1937. Since then, cases have been reported in Europe, the Middle East, West and Central Asia, and the Pacific Islands, as well as Africa and North America.
A spate of dead birds has been the early warning signal that the virus is circulating. And for people infected, there's no pain like it.
Louisiana has launched a statewide campaign to warn the public where the danger lurks, how to get rid of it and how to stay protected.
"You've probably heard about the threat posed by certain mosquitoes," says a public service announcement. "Louisiana, mosquitoes can kill. Let's get together and fight the bite."
While experts warn may who contract the virus may never experience the symptoms, they warn that the mosquito season here is a long one. The bugs don't reach their peak numbers for at least another three weeks.