September 5, 2000

U.S. Watches for Virus Recurrence

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In the midst of mosquito season, scientists and government agencies are on alert for any signs of a reoccurrence of the 1999 West Nile Virus (WNV) outbreak that caught New York City by surprise last summer.

Before this 1999 incident the WNV had never been detected in the Americas, but by late July 2000 the WNV had surfaced in four states including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

WNV is an encephalitis-causing virus that is spread by mosquitos and other arthropods. The virus was recognized as a cause of severe meningoencephalitis — an inflammation of the spinal cord and brain — during an 1957 outbreak in Israel. The appearance of the WNV with encephalitis in North American humans and horses, may be an important milestone in the evolving history of the virus.

Cornellians are aware of the WNV and the minor threat that exists for Ithaca since less than 1% of all mosquitos are infected. In Ithaca, no “positive signs of the WNV have been detected,” according to Cornell virologist Amy Glaser, Ph.D.

“It sounds like something to worry about, but no one seems to be worried about it and it seems like it has been rare for humans to get,” said Marta Kadaiolla ’02.

Over the past several months, the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH) has been engaged in an intensive planning effort to prepare not only for the possible re-emergence of the virus, but for a long term comprehensive approach for preventing arthropod diseases.

Prevention has been the major focus in the fight against the disease. According to the NYCDOH the “goal of the new program is to prevent and contain disease caused by mosquitos and other insects by detecting the presence of a pathogen or infectious agent in the environment before humans are infected.”

The program will control the mosquito population by reducing the potential for mosquito reproduction and by spraying infected areas with pesticides if necessary.

Recently, the Suffolk, Rockland and Westchester counties of New York have seen WNV activity. Officials in those counties are currently mobilizing action to stop the threat of the virus by using pesticides.

Many Cornell students are concerned about the harmful effects of pesticides outweighing the risk of the virus. “Killing mosquitos won’t decrease the risk. We don’t know if the pesticides are more harmful than helpful,” said Gary Pagano ’01.

The occurrence of the virus has gotten much attention during this mosquito season, but has not caused a hysteria among students. “It concerns me but unfortunately spraying alone won’t make it stop,” said Kevin Conley ’01.

Archived article by Maria Rosso