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West Nile Virus Sweeping The U.S.

The crows no longer caw raucously in the early mornings outside the neat homes of northwest Washington. They are gone, hundreds of them apparent victims of West Nile virus.

Playgrounds once crowded in the dusk hours after work are more often than not deserted, small children are kept inside away from the July heat and humidity but also from mosquitoes that spread the disease.

The virus, which made its first Western Hemisphere appearance in New York's borough of Queens in 1999, is now considered endemic along most of the East Coast and is making its way west and northward.

Carried by migrating birds, it could become a permanent resident of the entire continental United States.

"It's moving pretty fast," Bob McLean, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, said in a telephone interview.

"There are eight new states this year and many in the West, including Texas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada."

At this time last year only nine states had reported West Nile infections in birds or mosquitoes, but 28 states have done so this year.

Because it is new, some people have reacted with fear, but health officials agree it is not a serious threat to the population.

West Nile has killed 18 people since its appearance in the United States in 1999, and caused notable infections in 161, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Two-thirds of the patients have been over 60, many with other illnesses making them susceptible to the infection, which can cause encephalitis or meningitis -- inflammations of the brain and spinal cord.

Last year 66 people became ill and nine died. This year so far, the CDC reports 12 cases and no deaths.

Many more people were probably bitten by infected mosquitoes, but in the average healthy person the virus causes no symptoms, or perhaps a vaguely flu-like feeling. Scientists predicted the virus would spread easily.

First reported in Uganda in 1937 and now common across much of Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and the Pacific, West Nile virus was probably carried here by birds.

It can only become more entrenched in the United States, McLean said, because the virus is now found in states such as Louisiana and Florida, where mosquitoes are active year-round, and where the most common species feed heavily on birds.

The virus spreads from mosquitoes to birds, who carry it when they migrate. West Nile is highly deadly to corvids -- birds including jays, magpies and crows.

It is less likely to kill thrushes such as robins, or sparrows, pigeons, mourning doves and cardinals, which carry it in their blood, reinfecting mosquitoes that bite them, and then spread it to mammals including people and horses.

"The gulf coastal states look like a source of continual transmission," McLean said. "It also started earlier this year in the northern states, which indicated the virus activity is becoming more endemic — it is occurring all the time."

Unlike many other infections, which rarely are recorded unless a human gets sick enough to go to a hospital, West Nile is easy to monitor. Dead crows are highly visible and can be reported to authorities and tested.

"It is fortunate, not for the crows, but fortunate for those of us trying to track disease in that it gives a very good marker for viral activity moving into an area," said Randy Crom of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Washington, D.C., the health department has been overwhelmed with reports of dead crows. Voice mailboxes have filled and residents complain no one comes to test the birds.

"We are finding the first positive birds earlier every year," said Peggy Keller of the capital's animal disease control center. "Last year the first were reported in mid-July and this year it was the first of May."

When five birds test positive in one zip code, she said the department then tests some of the birds and uses a computer to forecast the actual spread of disease. Her department is testing a crow found dead on the White House lawn and last week two flamingos at the National Zoo succumbed to the virus.

Much of her job involves calming people. "Things tend to be a little scary sometimes and that is why we are trying to educate people," she said.

"The risk is very, very minimal. If you are in an area where the mosquitoes have tested positive, there is only a one in 1,000 chance that (any one) mosquito is positive and if the mosquito is positive, a one in 300 chance that you would be infected," she said.

"But because this is a new emerging infectious disease, we don't know everything about it."

The preferred method to control the insects is to kill the larvae while it develops in water, often by using bacteria.

Residents are also told to use repellent, wear long-sleeved clothing and control standing water around their homes.

"Mosquitoes breed in such a very small volume of water -- a thimbleful," Keller said. Storm drains, pet bowls, the dishes that potted plants sit in, even a leaf can hold a breeding mosquito population.

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