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Public urged to dump water, fight West Nile

| Thursday, April 10, 2003

Spring. Baseball. West Nile virus. It's that season again.

With the weather chilly and snow still a fresh memory, it might seem too early to worry about the mosquito-borne virus. Yet the state's first positive test for the West Nile virus already has been made in a culex mosquito found in Lehigh County.

State and Allegheny County officials are asking the public to do more to fight the potentially deadly disease. Last year, 22 people in Allegheny County were infected, four of them fatally. Statewide, 62 people were infected; nine died.

"(It's) hard to predict how this season will go. We certainly expect it to be on par with last year," said Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the state Health Department.

Humans are most at risk in late summer and fall when the mosquito population peaks, but now is the time to reduce the mosquito population, McGarvey said.

The public is urged to dispose of standing water from their yards, whether it's a cupful, a bucketful or a trickle inside old tires or on top of a flower pot, and to report findings of dead crows, bluejays, owls, hawks and falcons. Those birds are most likely to succumb to the West Nile virus, Cole said.

"That will help us track the virus and know where to spray for mosquitoes," he said.

Officials also learned more about controlling the spread of the disease, and more counties will treat mosquito-infested areas earlier in the season, he said.

Last month, Allegheny County officials began targeting mosquito larvae by treating wetlands with pesticides and will continue treating those areas through May.

In June, the county will treat about 50,000 catch basins in Pittsburgh and the immediate surrounding suburbs, said Bill Todaro, an entomologist who oversees the county's West Nile virus control efforts. "This is a perfect breeding site for mosquitoes," he said. A biological toxin will be applied to corn cobs and placed in the basins, he said.

The county government cannot afford to spray everywhere and is focusing on the most densely populated areas because that's where last year's victims lived, he said.

When county officials went through the victims' neighborhoods, Todaro said, they were frustrated by the large numbers of trash cans, buckets and old tires filled with water, despite repeated public warnings to get rid of those.

"We can not possibly go in everybody's yard and dump over everybody's five-gallon buckets," he said.

Allegheny County also is training municipal employees to use pesticides, Todaro said.

Symptoms of West Nile virus include fever, headaches, body aches, rash and swollen lymph glands. In some cases, it can lead to encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, and death. Less than 1 percent of people who become infected become seriously ill.

Most mosquitoes do not carry the virus, and most people who are infected do not become ill.

This year, the state will test only five dead birds a week from each county. Last year, 162 of 238 dead birds tested positive for the virus, McGarvey said. Only 33 of 221 mosquitoes tested positive, he said.

As part of the West Nile virus surveillance program, state and county officials regularly trap and test mosquitoes, which is how the Lehigh County mosquito was found. So far, 115 mosquitoes statewide have been tested.

Reports of dead birds can be made to the Allegheny County Health Department at (412) 687-2243, or on the state's West Nile Web site at www.westnile.state.pa.us. Click on "I Found a Dead Bird."

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