Health Experts Alarmed at Spread of West Nile Virus in Louisiana

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The hospitalization of three men with the potentially deadly West Nile virus — the first human cases reported this year — have experts alarmed at the infection's rapid spread since it first appeared in New York in 1999.

The men, all living in towns east of Baton Rouge, were hospitalized with the mosquito-borne virus this week. A 78-year-old man was diagnosed Monday, and two more men, ages 62 and 53, were diagnosed Thursday.

"We're seeing that it spread from an epicenter in the Northeast, and then there was an epicenter in Florida last year. Now it seems that we're seeing a lot of activity in Louisiana that might suggest it could become an epicenter," said Dr. Lois Levitan, program leader at the Environmental Risk Analysis Program at Cornell University. The center studies the development of West Nile in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Marfin with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the Louisiana cases are the first reported to the CDC in 2002.

"The likelihood is that this virus will cross the entire country," said Gary Belfamo, a public health veterinarian and assistant state epidemiologist in Louisiana.

West Nile virus has killed 18 people along the East Coast since it was first detected in 1999. Last summer was the most severe, with 66 human infections and nine deaths nationwide.

Mosquitoes spread West Nile from infected birds to humans, who can then develop deadly encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. Humans cannot pass the virus to each other. Symptoms are similar to the flu, including fatigue and fever. There is no cure for the virus.

The CDC in Atlanta urges people to report dead birds to local health authorities and to protect themselves against mosquito bites by getting rid of standing water, where mosquitoes breed, and to wear insect repellent or long sleeves outdoors.