West Nile virus could strike Alaska

Posted: Monday, August 19, 2002

FAIRBANKS - Alaska's high latitude and cold weather may not protect residents from the typically temperate-dwelling West Nile virus.

A Fairbanks insect expert thinks the disease could arrive here in less than a decade on the wings of migratory birds.

"It may get up here before it gets across the Rocky Mountains, just because of the way the migratory patterns work," said Dr. James Kruse, a curator and entomologist at the University of Alaska Museum. "It could possibly take as long as seven or eight years."

While state officials aren't ready to sound the alarm about a potential outbreak, they're not ignoring the possibility either.

Health officials and Fish and Game staff are talking with officials in the Lower 48 about how their states are preparing for a potential outbreak, said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Social Services.

One particular area of interest, she said, is developing a testing center in Alaska, home to two types of mosquitos that are carriers of the potentially deadly disease.

Kruse, the Fairbanks bug expert, stressed there's nothing for Alaskans to "freak out about." But he said the state's location does not isolate it from the virus, which has been found in European birds at latitudes similar to Alaska's.

More than 100 birds have been identified that carry the virus, and about 40 of them spend time in Alaska, Kruse said.

But if the birds do bring the virus to Alaska, a series of natural events must occur before exposure to humans becomes deadly, Castrodale said.

First, she said, a mosquito must bite an infected bird when the virus is in full swing. If the mosquito ingests enough infected blood, it then must transfer the virus to a human in time.

But the infected person might never know it, Castrodale said. "A lot of people probably become infected, but they don't become seriously ill."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 1 percent of people infected with West Nile virus develop severe illness. The virus becomes deadly when it causes encephalitis, a severe inflammation of the brain.

The virus has killed 26 people in the United States since it was first discovered in the country in 1999, according to the CDC.

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