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Summer brings West Nile season once again

By Shannon Jenkins

West Nile season is here once again, and although it isn't rampant in south metro Atlanta, area health officials aren't quick to shrug it off.

The Georgia Division of Public Health is keeping a close eye on the mosquito-spread virus as reports pop up around the country of healthy people suffering from "perplexing complications" of the West Nile virus. The Associated Press has reported that patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s have been struck with polio-like paralysis or severe muscle weakness as a result of the virus.

When the virus hit the United States for the first time in New York in 1999, West Nile was only considered a threat to the elderly and frail. Now, new research reveals the people can be impaired for weeks or months with mild cases of West Nile fever.

"As we learn more about West Nile virus, we recognize more serious long-term results can occur even in young and healthy individuals than had first been predicted, said Michael Brackett, health director for District 4 Health Services in Henry County.

According to Health Services, there have been no positive human cases of West Nile in Henry County in 2003 or 2004. However, in Clayton County, there was one human case in 2003 and three in 2004, said Hayla Hall, a risk communicator and spokeswoman for District 4 Health Services. Hall said there have been no deaths associated with the virus. More than 16,600 human cases and 654 deaths have been reported across the nation since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It is important to encourage people to remain vigilant about avoiding mosquito bites by removing standing water from around their homes (and) wearing insect repellent that contains DEET," Hall said. "Wear pants, long sleeves, shoes and socks when you are outdoors while mosquitoes are active."

The Associated Press reported that severe illness is still rare, with about 80 percent of people infected never showing symptoms, and that there is no vaccine or approved treatment for West Nile.

Symptoms of serious illness include high fever, severe headache, confusion or difficulty thinking, stiff neck, severe muscle weakness or tremors. Anyone experiencing these symptoms are urged to see a doctor right away.

For more information about West Nile, visit the Georgia Division of Public Health's Web site at http://health.state.ga.us/epi/vbd/mosquito.asp.