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West Nile Threat Spreads to Atlanta

Residents in the Atlanta area are being told to protect themselves against mosquitoes after the region's first death from the West Nile virus.

The virus, which causes swelling of the brain and claimed its first victims in the Northeast 2 years ago, could be particularly threatening to the South. CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston explains.

Health department officials in Atlanta declined to identify the 71-year-old woman whose death made history this week.

"It's the first human death in Metro Atlanta caused by the mosquito-borne West Nile virus," says Nancy Boxill, Fulton County commissioner.

In fact, the elderly woman was the first person to die from West Nile encephalitis in the South since the mosquito-borne illness was first detected in the US in 1999.

Dickson Despommier of Columbia University says, "The virus is here to stay. It established a beachhead in 1999. It expanded that in 2000. [In] 2001, it's all over the place."

Health officials track the spread of the virus through dead birds, which carry the virus. Mosquitoes bite infected birds, then transmit West Nile to humans.

From the Northeast, where seven people died in 1999, the virus spread along the Eastern Seaboard into Florida and across the Gulf Coast into Louisiana and Texas.

This same region has a high population of senior citizens, many with weakened immune systems that are less able to fight off infections.

Despommier says, "You have an aging population that lies in Florida which is at greater risk from disease than most other populations, and so, for that state in particular, I would say that that is a worry."

To kill off mosquitoes, health departments across the South are stepping up insecticide spraying and encouraging local residents to use mosquito repellent, wear long sleeves, and eliminate mosquito breeding grounds.

But there's only so much anyone can do against insects that have plagued humans through the ages.

"We never got rid of malaria in ths country by getting rid of the mosquitoes. We just got rid of most of their breeding grounds," says Despommier.

The bottom line, say experts, is: Be cautious, but don't be overly alarmed. Less than 1% of mosquitos are infected, less than 1% of humans who are bitten become ill, and very few will die.
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