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Watch is on for West Nile in East Texas

By Richard Yeakley
June 1, 2013 at 11 p.m.


The West Nile watch is on in East Texas.

After the deadliest year ever in America for the mosquito-borne illness in 2012, state and local health officials this spring are getting an earlier start on prevention and education about the threat.

So far, Longview officials say, they are finding no reason to do more than continue their focus on using larvacide to stop mosquitoes before they hatch - and reminding residents to practice prevention.

The virus already has been detected elsewhere in East Texas, though. The state health department nine days ago reported the season's first case of West Nile virus in an adult male in Anderson County, just south of Tyler. The health department said the man was recovering from the more severe neuroinvasive form of the disease.

In Longview, the Environmental Health Department is actively trapping for mosquitoes in areas where they're known to breed. The goal: to determine how many of the insects are active and whether the West Nile-carrying Culex mosquito is present.

"We are finding very few mosquitos," said Shawn Hara, the city spokesman. That means that, so far, there is no need for Longview to begin rolling its spray trucks through neighborhoods in attempts to control the mosquito population.

But the city is ready.

<strong>Focus is vigilance</strong>

After 2012's outbreak, Longview added a second truck to spray streets and kill mosquitoes should the need arise.

For now, the focus is vigilance and education.

On Thursday, representatives of the Texas Department of State Health Services conducted meetings in Tyler and Lufkin to "urge people to take precautions to reduce the risk of contracting the virus."

The meetings were the planned before the May 24 news of the Anderson County case, officials said.

"This is the time of year that we expect to start seeing cases," said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the state health department. "We are certainly hoping for a quieter year (than 2012) in terms of case count."

Awareness of West Nile across the state is heightened this year after Texas bore the brunt of last year's record-setting outbreak.

In 2012, Texas reported 1,868 human cases of West Nile, including 89 deaths. One-third of the serious cases and one-third of deaths from the outbreak in the U.S. were reported in Texas. The final U.S. death toll last year reached 286 - two more than the record set in 2002.

<strong>East Texas deaths</strong>

The death toll extended to East Texas. West Nile killed people in Gregg, Harrison, Panola and Bowie counties and infected hundreds of others. Cities and counties across the area responded with aggressive public awareness programs and routine fogging in their efforts to combat the disease-carrying Culex mosquitos.

Last week's informational meetings included sessions about the disease, efforts for prevention and mosquito control and provided a chance for community leaders and residents to ask questions.

"These were special events geared towards education to get the people in that area information about West Nile virus, especially given the very high case counts last summer," Williams said.

The events were held in partnership with the Northeast Texas Public Health District, the Angelina County and Cities Health District and the Texas A&M University Department of Entomology.

Williams said the two sessions were the first of the season, but the department would consider conducting more if an area needed information.

While urging Texas residents to take use preventative measures, state officials reminded Texans that no-one can predict the intensity of the outbreak this year.

"The intensity of West Nile virus activity in Texas fluctuates from year to year and depends on a variety of factors including the weather, the numbers of birds and mosquitoes that maintain and spread the virus and human behavior," state health officials said in a news release announcing the events. "DSHS is urging people to take precautions to reduce the risk of contracting the virus."

<strong>Three categories</strong>

West Nile virus falls into three categories: West Nile fever, West Nile neuroinvasive disease and asymptomatic infection.

The most common infection, asymptomatic, has no symptoms. Most people with such infections will recover on their own, without knowing they were infected.

People with West Nile fever, about 20 percent of cases, may have mild flu-like symptoms. Some patients have rashes and muscle aches, which is classic for any viral disease. The incubation time for the virus is from two to 14 days.

West Nile is most dangerous when it causes neuroinvasive diseases. Symptoms of a neuroinvasive disease include dizziness, lightheadedness, confusion, unresponsiveness and coma. Paralysis is also seen in this disease.

No West Nile vaccine is available for humans.

With a neuroinvasive disease, the fatality rate is about 5 percent. Some patients have residual abnormalities.

Immunity wanes as people get older, so the risk of becoming ill from the virus increases with age.

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