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Stanford Report, May 7, 2003

Environmental Health & Safety issues warning on West Nile virus


While the threat of the deadly SARS virus may have quelled travel plans to Asia this summer, Stanford's Department of Environmental Health and Safety is warning against the arrival of another potentially fatal disease in our own backyard.

West Nile virus, a disease typically spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, originally was discovered in the West Nile District of Uganda in 1937. Until recently, it had been detected in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, but since 1999, West Nile virus has steadily spread across the United States, with the first reported case occurring in New York City. Over the last four years, the virus has killed nearly 300 Americans, sickened almost 4,000 others and spread to 44 states.

"We know it's going to be here in a relatively short amount of time," said Ellyn Segal, biosafety manager at Environmental Health and Safety. "No one's going to argue that it won't."

Following initiatives taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Santa Clara County Health Department, the university has issued information booklets on the virus to campus departments and maintenance personnel.

According to the CDC, only one locally acquired case of the virus has been reported in California -- a Los Angeles women who was infected last August.

The majority of those who are infected will suffer from mild flulike symptoms, including high fever, muscle weakness, severe headache and rash. In some individuals, however, West Nile virus can cause encephalitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain.

"Now is the time to start preparing against West Nile virus," said Segal, who also warned of potentially larger numbers of mosquitoes in the coming months.

The best way to prevent West Nile virus infection is by eliminating sources of standing water, which serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes. People are advised to dispose of containers like cans and bottles, check catch basins and storm drains, and clean out rain gutters. Dead birds also should be reported to local health authorities, as they could indicate the presence of West Nile virus in the area.

Risk of infection can be reduced by wearing mosquito repellant containing DEET, especially between the hours of dusk and dawn. People should consider limiting outdoor activities during these times or wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants and socks.