West Nile hits home in Henry

By Diane Wagner

Five dead birds found in Henry County over the past 30 days tested positive for the West Nile Virus.

One dead bird with the virus may have flown in from another area before dying, according to Larry Stanford, the county's public information officer, but the five dead birds have health officials concerned.

"We are pretty sure that West Nile Virus is in the Henry County area," said Environmental Health Director Glinda Scott. "The number of birds that we've found is a good indication."

The infected birds, all found in the McDonough area, bring to seven the number of confirmed cases in the county this year.

The Clayton County Department of Health reported seven cases in birds and one found in a mosquito pool, as of Oct. 2.

No related medical problems have been reported in either county this year, according to the Georgia Division of Public Health, but there have been 28 human cases and four deaths in other parts of the state. Spokesman Richard Quartarone said the virus was responsible for deaths in White, Muscogee, Dougherty and Chatham counties.

"The cases and the birds are all over the state," he said. "It just happened that the people there had health conditions that made them more susceptible to West Nile Virus."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which tracks the virus nationwide, notes that people over the age of 50 have the highest risk of severe disease. People with heart disease, diabetes and those undergoing chemotherapy and other cancer therapies are also at risk.

"It's scary to know it's around," McDonough resident Dottie Vandenberge said as she was leaving the Heritage Senior Center on Friday. "If there's one mosquito around, it will find me. So knowing it's here makes me pay more attention."

According to the CDC, only about 20 percent of the people who become infected will develop the disease and an estimated 1 in 150 of those who do will have a severe case.

Mild symptoms include fever, headache, body aches and, occasionally, swollen lymph glands and a rash on the trunk of the body. Severe infection is marked by the addition of neck stiffness, stupor, disoriention, tremors, coma, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis.

Quartarone said the victim in White County actually died from another medical problem three months after contracting the virus, but she had been left paralyzed and her body was unable to fight off the newer threat.

Statewide, there were 44 human cases of the virus reported in 2002 and seven deaths, but Quartarone said early rains seem to have delayed the peak season this year.

"Right now it's actually a very important time to be aware of the risks," he said. "It's getting cooler so people aren't thinking about using repellent, and it's really nice outside so they're opening up their windows. The virus is still out there, and it will be out there until the temperatures get into the 50s."

There is no specific treatment for West Nile Virus and no vaccine to ward against it. The best way to avoid the disease is to avoid mosquitoes, although the CDC notes that relatively few mosquitoes actually carry West Nile Virus.

Clayton County Central Services has been spraying the county by commission districts, on a rotating basis, and will continue through the week of Nov. 3. Charcoal-like briquettes are also being used in standing water to prevent mosquito larvae from developing.

Because of controversy over the health risks and benefits from chemical sprays, Henry County has chosen another option to protect its residents.

Stanford culled information from the CDC, the health department and the Environmental Protection Agency to produce an easy-to-read educational brochure, and free mosquito control tablets are available to all county residents. The materials can be picked up at the county building department on the lower floor of the administration building, 140 Henry Parkway.

As of Oct. 16, the CDC has recorded 6,977 confirmed human cases in the United States this year and 149 deaths. Although four states have no reported cases and eight states reported one or two, Georgia ranks relatively low on the spectrum.

Colorado reported 2,170 human cases and 44 deaths; Nebraska reported 1,108 human cases and 15 deaths; South Dakota reported 930 human cases and eight deaths; and Texas reported 421 human cases and 15 deaths.