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County prepares for West Nile virus

Veronica Whitney
The above poster is part of the state's campaign to warn residents about West Nile virus. Local health workers say the disease could be more widespread in Eagle County this summer then last, when one woman fell ill and two horses died of the virus.
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It’s getting close to mosquito season and Eagle County is launching its campaign against West Nile virus.

The county next month will begin distributing a fact sheet in English and Spanish with information on how to prevent the virus that killed 62 people in Colorado last year.



Eagle County reported its first human case of West Nile virus in August when a blood sample obtained from an Edwards woman tested positive for West Nile fever, the most common and milder form of the mosquito-born disease.

Although no more human cases were reported in 2003, two horses died of West Nile virus in Eagle County in the fall.



“We need to start taking precautions toward the end of May, when it gets warmer,” said Kathleen Forinash, a county health and human services worker. “Our campaign is very straightforward. If we get into a habit of taking precautions we really reduce the chances of getting bit by a mosquito that is carrying the virus.”

Because this would be the virus’ second year in Eagle County, Forinash said she expects more cases of the disease – a trend that had occurred consistently in other parts of the country.

“We know that the West Nile virus is everywhere in Colorado and the United States. It’s part of our summer reality,” she said. “The virus has spread west from the east coast and it has been the experience that the second year the virus is more prevalent than the first year.”



Last year, Colorado had the most cases of West Nile virus in the country with 2,947 cases, including 2,325 cases of fever, 389 of meningitis and 233 of encephalitis, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Most of the cases in Colorado were among people in the 45-49 age group.

As of April 14, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports there were 9,858 cases and 262 deaths in the United States last year.

“This is something we should worry about,” Forinash said. “It’s important for folks to know that they can take responsibility to protect themselves from the virus by wearing insect repellent with DEET.”

West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne disease that can cause the brain and spinal cord to swell. Mosquitoes acquire the virus from birds and pass it on to other birds, animals and people. Mosquitoes spread this virus after they feed on infected birds and then bite people, other birds and animals.

It is not spread by person-to-person contact and there is no evidence that people can get the virus by handling infected animals.

Although there’s no West Nile vaccine for humans, there is one available for horses and local veterinarians recommend horse owners vaccinate their horses.

“People who are outdoors and working in irrigated areas are at the highest risk,” Forinash said. “We just have to change our behavior to protect ourselves.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

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West Nile virus facts

The symptoms

People with mild infections may experience fever, headache, body aches, skin rash and swollen lymph glands – this is called West Nile fever. People with more severe infections may experience high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, occasional convulsions and paralysis – this is called West Nile encephalitis. If you have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor.

How do humans get West Nile?

The principle route of human infection is through the bite of an infected mosquito. The majority of the people who get infected with the virus have no illness or at most, have an infection similar to a mild flu with fever, headache and fatigue.

Only certain species of mosquitoes carry the virus. The culex tarsalis is the only mosquito that carries the virus in Colorado. The culex tarsalis mosquito will feed on anything, including horses, birds and humans.

Health officials believe one reason the disease is spreading so rapidly is because of the culex tarsalis’ feeding habits.

Prevention

– Avoid outdoor activities, such as gardening, at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.

– If outside during the periods when mosquitoes are most active, cover up by wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, shoes and socks.

– Use mosquito repellents with DEET. Products with 10 percent or less DEET are recommended for children.

– Eliminate standing water in tires or similar water-holding containers as these may serve as mosquito breeding sites. Change the water in birdbaths at least weekly.

Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

On the Web: http://www.FighttheBiteColorado.com

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