State Health Officials Target West Nile Virus
Albany, December 16, 1999 – State health officials are preparing to mount a full–scale, collaborative campaign to address the potential return of West Nile virus to New York State, State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H. announced today.
West Nile virus is the arthropod–borne infection that was responsible for 59 cases of encephalitis in New York City and surrounding counties this past summer and fall and seven deaths. Prior to the New York State outbreak, the virus had never before been identified in the Western hemisphere. In addition to the human cases, West Nile infection was confirmed in hundreds of birds, mainly crows, as well as several horses and other domestic animals before low temperatures brought an end to mosquito activity in November. West Nile virus primarily is transmitted by the Culex pipiens mosquito, which feeds both on humans and birds.
"Because West Nile virus is new to our hemisphere, no one can say with any certainty whether the virus has run its course or if the cycle of infection will begin anew when mosquitos emerge from hibernation. I can assure you, however, that New York State will be prepared to address this issue proactively, aggressively and fully to protect our citizens and ensure that they do not have to worry unnecessarily," said State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H.
Following a daylong session earlier this week that brought together representatives from various State agencies, New York City, affected counties and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Novello announced the framework of a comprehensive plan that will focus on heightened public awareness about reduction of Culex pipiens breeding sites and personal mosquito protection. The plan also calls for hiring additional staff in the State Health Department's Arthropod–borne Disease program; improved monitoring to identify the virus in mosquitos, birds and other animals, enhanced active and passive surveillance for human encephalitis cases and improved systems for electronic data collection and sharing.
Working collaboratively with other State agencies, New York City officials and county representatives and community and environmental groups, the State Health Department will:
- Mount an aggressive health education campaign designed to elicit public cooperation to reduce man–made collections of polluted water in which Culex mosquitos breed (such as stagnant backyard pools or bird baths, old tires, rain water barrels and the like), and to help individuals reduce their risk of being bitten by mosquitos;
- Educate health care providers about the virus and improve reporting of human encephalitis cases;
- Provide additional resources to the Department's Arthropod–borne Disease Program to expand mosquito trapping and provide assistance to local health departments in their mosquito surveillance and control efforts;
- Continue to enhance laboratory resources at the State Health Department's Wadsworth Laboratories so that any suspect human cases of West Nile virus can be quickly confirmed or ruled out without the need for out–of–state testing;
- Improve dead bird surveillance in order to facilitate collection and testing of birds suspected of infection with West Nile virus;
- Enlist the cooperation of veterinarians to identify potential cases of West Nile virus in horses and pets, and establish laboratory facilities to test for West Nile infection in farm and domestic animals within New York State; and
- Upgrade electronic information systems so that the State and county health departments can quickly and efficiently share case information and laboratory results while protecting patient confidentiality and ensuring accuracy of data.
Dr. Novello said State officials also are considering the possibility of using "sentinel birds" as an early warning device, that is, establishing a system to obtain regular blood samples from certain birds to determine whether they have developed West Nile antibodies, indicating exposure to the virus. Detection of the virus in sentinel birds would trigger a reassessment of ongoing surveillance and control measures. Either domestic birds or wild birds could serve as sentinels.
"We hope that this advance planning will be unnecessary and that New York has seen the last of West Nile virus," Dr. Novello said. "However, good prevention is good medicine. Therefore, having these comprehensive surveillance and information systems in place will give us an advantage in dealing not only with the West Nile virus, should it recur, but with other emerging pathogens that may confront State and local health officials in the coming months and years."
The Health Commissioner said that the Department will work with environmental and community organizations to maximize health education activities. Officials believe that enhanced public awareness, prevention education and proactive environmental control measures (reduction of mosquito breeding sites) are some of the best strategies to minimize the need for aerial spraying. Should spraying become necessary, the decision to do so will be made at the county level. The State Health Department will provide an assessment and recommendation for appropriate actions.
Following this week's meeting, State and county health officials are convening workgroups to develop further aspects of State and county response plans. The full group will meet again next month.12/16/99–173 OPA