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HEALTH REPORT - September 18, 2002: West Nile Virus Update - 2002-09-17

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

The United States Centers for Disease Control says more than one-thousand-two hundred people across the country have been infected by the West Nile virus this year. At least forty-five people in fourteen states have died from sicknesses caused by the virus.

The West Nile virus is commonly found in Africa, West Asia and the Middle East. It can infect mosquitoes, people, birds, horses and other animals such as cats and rabbits. The virus is passed to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.

The West Nile virus usually causes a minor sickness known as West Nile fever. Many people do not even know they have it. It lasts only a few days and does not seem to cause any permanent health effects.

The virus can also cause much more serious diseases that can kill. These include West Nile encephalitis and West Nile meningitis. In these diseases, the virus spreads through the blood system and enters the brain. It affects the central nervous system and causes swelling of brain tissue. Older people and those with weakened defense systems against disease are more at risk of developing serious diseases from the West Nile virus.

West Nile virus was first found in the United States in the summer of nineteen-ninety-nine in the state of New York. It has spread every summer since then. Scientists say it is now permanently established in this part of the world.

Four people developed West Nile virus infections after receiving organs from a woman killed in a car accident. The West Nile virus was later found in the woman’s blood. She had received blood transfusions in the hospital before she died. It is not known if she became infected with the virus from that blood or if she was infected from a mosquito. Public health officials are trying to answer this question. They are also investigating whether several other people may have gotten the virus from blood they received in hospitals.

The United States Food and Drug Administration has published a warning to organizations involved in collecting blood. It told officials not to take blood from people who seem to have signs of West Nile fever. There is no test that will tell if collected blood contains the virus. The Centers for Disease Control says public health officials will work to develop such a test if it is shown that the virus can be spread through blood.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Nancy Steinbach.