Public asked to help track West Nile virus; vaccinate horses

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Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 11:46 am

OLYMPIA – The Washington Department of Health is asking residents to help track the West Nile virus by reporting dead birds, which can be the first sign the virus is circulating in a community.

"Tracking dead birds and West Nile virus gives people information they need to avoid getting sick," stated Maryanne Guichard, assistant secretary of Environmental Public Health. "Avoiding mosquito bites is the key to preventing West Nile virus.”

While Washington has been relatively free of the virus, Guichard said last year brought the most reported West Nile virus illnesses nationwide since 2003.

In 2012, there were 5,674 cases reported in the 48 contiguous states, a number that includes 286 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two Washington residents acquired West Nile virus in-state and two more were likely exposed while traveling outside the state, while none died.

West Nile virus can cause illness in people, birds, horses, and other mammals if bitten by an infected mosquito. Dead bird monitoring can help provide information on areas where the virus may be active. Crows, ravens, jays, magpies, and hawks are particularly important to report because they often die from West Nile virus infection.

Now through October, Washington residents may report dead birds online at http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/IllnessandDisease/WestNileVirus/ReportaDeadBird.aspx

Most people bitten by an infected mosquito carrying West Nile virus won't get sick, health officials say. Some may develop mild symptoms such as fever or headache that go away without treatment, although the elderly and people with weak immune systems are more likely to develop serious illness, which may include meningitis or encephalitis. Some neurological effects can be permanent, and West Nile virus disease can be fatal.

Vaccinate horses

Along with taking precautions to avoid mosquitos themselves, State Veterinarian Leonard Eldridge urges horse owners to vaccinate their animals against West Nile virus

In August 2012, a two-year-old gelding pastured near Grandview was euthanized after it became ill following a bite from a mosquito infected with West Nile virus. The horse was not vaccinated for the disease.

"It was the only West Nile equine case reported to us last year, but there's no way to predict the virus won't return in force this year," Eldridge stated. "Outbreaks still present a risk."

Although most horses infected with the mosquito-borne illness do not become ill, West Nile virus is fatal in about one-third of all horses that show symptoms. Horses that do become ill show a loss of coordination, loss of appetite, confusion, fever, stiffness and muscle weakness, particularly in the hindquarters. Infected horses do not spread West Nile virus to other horses or animals.

Anyone who learns of potential West Nile virus cases in horses or other animals is asked to contact the State Veterinarian's Office at (360) 902-1881.

Regular updates on West Nile are available by calling 1-866-788-4787.

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