The Collegian
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Is the university prepared for West Nile Virus?

Mosquitos in the city of Richmond, as well as many of the Henrico County zip codes surrounding the University of Richmond, have tested positive for the potentially lifethreatening West Nile Virus, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control Web site defines West Nile Virus as a mosquito-borne potentially serious illness that has emerged in the United States during recent years. The virus has infected many birds, animals and humans, causing illness and in some cases death. The CDC Web site notes that although rare, the most serious form of West Nile infection is fatal encephalitis, inflammation of the brain or meningitis, inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord.

According to David Gaines, Virginia's public health entomologist, West Nile Virus was first detected in Virginia during the fall of 2000 when seven birds collected in seven separate counties tested positive for the virus. The first human cases of the virus were reported in 2002, and since then there have been a total of 68 human West Nile Virus cases in Virginia, four of which were fatal, Gaines said.

There is no known cure for West Nile Virus infection, which is why the Virginia Department of Health has taken steps to combat the problem. Dee Pettit of the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, explained that the Virginia Health Department has taken a strong preventative approach because there is no cure.

"There are some antiviral drugs, such as Interferon and Ribravirin, but they haven't been shown to be very effective," Pettit said. "Because there aren't any good treatments we focus on prevention."

One of these prevention programs is the surveillance of mosquito pools. The Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services has been testing mosquito populations, as well as dead birds and mammals, to determine the possible impact of the virus to humans in Virginia. DCLS is a publicly funded lab serving 26 of Virginia's state agencies, including the Department of Health.

According to DCLS scientist Bryan Tims, its labs have tested 85,000 mosquito pools this year. They have found 670 mosquito pools that have tested positive. Sixty of these positive pools were from Henrico County, and 99 of them were from the city of Richmond.

DCLS scientist Heather Masri, who focuses her research on birds, mammals and human samples rather than mosquitos, said the DCLS lab has tested 146 human specimens this year, five of which tested postive. Private laboratories in Virginia have also found three additional positive human specimens, but DCLS has not confirmed them.

The DCLS lab is a reminder of how serious the virus can be. The CDC specifies four levels of biocontainment precautions. This West Nile testing facility in Richmond is a Biosafety Level 3 lab.

DCLS tests for the virus in mosquitos, birds and mammals because in order for an outbreak in humans to occur, all these variables must be present.

"The human outbreaks are typically focal outbreaks," Pettit said. "You have to have mosquitos with the virus, you have to have birds with the virus and you have to have all the right environmental conditions for an outbreak to occur."

The purpose of the DCLS testing is to determine the localities in Virginia where all these variables coincide. It is these localities where the threat of human outbreak is most real.

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Henrico County specifically developed a Standing Water Initiative in response to the threat of West Nile Virus. This is an initiative to test and control the mosquito populations in Henrico County and educate the public about the threat of mosquito-borne diseases, according to Randy Buchanan of the Henrico Public Works Department.

"All Henrico zip code areas have been tested," Gaines said."We currently have 345 individual trap site locations throughout the county."

Mosquitos have tested positive for West Nile Virus in six of Henrico's 19 zip codes. All but one of the zip codes closest to the University of Richmond have mosquitos that have tested positive.

The University has also taken steps to make the student body aware of the threat of West Nile Virus. The Student Health Center Web site has a quick link to the CDC's Web page on West Nile Virus that provides information for clinicians. It also has a link to information about the virus under the "special announcements" tab and the "important health information" tab.

Has anyone at Richmond contracted West Nile Virus?

Although West Nile-positive mosquitos have been found in many of the areas surrounding the university, this does not necessarily mean students have a high chance of contracting the virus and becoming sick. According to Lynne Deane of the Health Center, no student cases of West Nile Virus have been reported.

A 2002 information pamphlet issued by the Virginia Department of Health noted that even in areas where mosquitos have tested positive, only a small percentage of the mosquito population will have the virus. The pamphlet also noted that "less than 1 percent of people who are infected will become seriously ill" and only "10 to 15 percent of those seriously ill, die."

The likelihood and severity of West Nile Virus also depends on age.

"West Nile is an age-related illness, and the human cases and the majority of human cases are seen in older people," Gaines said.

Although West Nile Virus is an age-related illness and the majority of severe cases are seen in older people, the Virginia Department of Health made clear that being young and healthy is no guarantee of immunity.

"[West Nile Virus] has occasionally been known to sicken or kill apparently healthy persons in their 20s and 30s," Gaines said. "It is always advisable to avoid mosquito bites, particularly in the period from mid-July to mid- September when most WNV transmission takes place."

Henrico health officials also warned against a casual attitude toward mosquito-borne diseases.

"Many [people] have become complacent about mosquito-borne diseases until they are directly affected," Buchanan said, "University of Richmond students should become aware of mosquito-borne disease issues and become mosquito-smart in general."

The scientists at DCLS suggest that students take preventative precautions, such as wearing long loose clothing, applying mosquito repellent and reducing time spent outdoors.

"Students are generally young and healthy, so don't worry," Masri said. "Worry is not the right word, but become knowledgeable"

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