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Some people contract virus and never know it

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

West Nile virus was blamed for 193 deaths nationwide last year, but the vast majority of people exposed to the disease suffered only minor symptoms or none at all, according to health officials.

The experts believe a lot of people contract the virus without ever knowing it, said C.J. Oliver, environmental health specialist for the city of Aspen.

Nonetheless, local health officials are urging residents to take precautions and offering instructions on how to help the state track the spread of the virus via birds, which can also die from West Nile virus.

The virus is carried by birds and transmitted by mosquitoes that feed on birds and then pass the virus on to other animals.

Area residents who find a dead bird should notify the city Environmental Health Department at 920-5039 or the Pitkin County Environmental Health Department at 920-5070 for further instruction.

“We will tell them what to do from there,” said Lee Cassin, director of the city department. “Based on the condition of the bird and how many dead birds we’ve had in that area, we may collect a sample and send it to a lab for testing.”

Local health officials don’t want anyone bringing them the carcasses of dead birds. Rather, local officials will come collect a throat swab from the bird if necessary.

Birds die from many causes, Cassin added.

“If people find a dead bird, they shouldn’t assume it died from West Nile virus because it probably died from something else,” she said.

In people, West Nile virus may produce flu-like symptoms, including a fever and muscle ache, but many individuals may not notice any ill effects and recover without incident.

Older men appear most susceptible to the disease, according to Oliver. Of last year’s fatalities nationwide, 79 was the median age of the victim and 63 percent of those who died were men, he said.

Last year, there were 3,399 documented cases of the virus in people nationwide. In Colorado, none of the 13 documented human cases proved fatal.

State health officials also detected the virus in 380 horses, of which 93 died, and 138 birds last year.

This year, the state began testing in mid-May, checking samples collected from 78 birds, 28 horses, 211 chickens and 61 mosquito pools. The virus was present in the sample from one dead magpie, found June 4 in south-central Colorado.

Health officials are urging everyone to use precautions to both protect themselves from mosquito bites and to reduce mosquito breeding grounds near their homes.

People should wear long pants and long sleeves at dawn and dusk, and apply insect repellent that contains DEET to exposed skin.

Holes in window screens should be repaired and residents should remove items from their yards that can collect standing water – old tires, buckets, empty cans, food and beverage containers, and the like, she advised.


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