Health officials prepare for West Nile | AspenTimes.com

Health officials prepare for West Nile

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It’s the most deadly animal known to man. For all the movies on sharks, snakes and spiders, it is the mosquito that’s the most efficient man killer.

Malaria and dengue fever have for years been its weapons of choice. But recently another pathogen has been added to the list ” West Nile virus. Months before the mosquito makes its appearance, local health experts have started preparations for its arrival.

Yesterday health officials from Pitkin County and the city of Aspen met with representatives from various institutions in the Roaring Fork Valley to discuss preparations for the upcoming West Nile season.

Officials reported that West Nile cases have increased exponentially in Colorado over the past two years. In 2001 there were no reported cases. In 2002, there were 14 human cases reported. In 2003 there were 2,274 reported cases.

West Nile virus only produces symptoms in 20 percent of infected people. Only one in 150 patients with symptoms become seriously ill. In rare cases, West Nile can cause meningitis and encephalitis, two extremely dangerous forms of brain inflammation. Last year 55 people in the state died from such complications.

There were no cases of West Nile in Pitkin County last year.

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In the past, it was thought that only people over 50 were in danger of serious illness. Yet CJ Olwin, an environmental health specialist for the city of Aspen, said that last year’s outbreak shows healthy adults are also at risk.

“Last year the emphasis was really on seniors and small kids, but we want to get the message out this year that we are all vulnerable and the risk of getting the disease is significant for everyone,” Olwin said.

From April to mid-September (the so-called “mosquito season”), county and city officials will run a monitoring program that includes trapping and testing mosquitos and testing dead birds. Due to their susceptibility to the disease, birds are often the first sign of an impending outbreak.

The county will also run a limited larvicide program on private property to help curb mosquito hatches.

Nan Sundeen, Pitkin County community relations director, said the greatest weapon against West Nile is education. She encouraged organizations around the valley to encourage residents to take steps to prevent the disease.

Among the recommendations is the use of insect repellent with at least a 30 percent DEET content for adults and 10 percent for children. DEET is a chemical ingredient shown to be the most effective insect repellent.

Long sleeves should be worn at dawn and dusk when mosquitos like to feed. Dead birds should be reported to local health authorities. And residents should try to avoid the buildup of stagnant water pools that can provide hatcheries for the bug and to routinely empty outdoor pots, wheelbarrows and other containers where rainwater collects.

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com]

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