NEW ORLEANS – The West Nile death toll is rising in Louisiana as the virus spreads across the U.S., appearing in Illinois and Alabama for the first time and festering in several other states.
Late Wednesday, a Washington, D.C., health official announced the first confirmed human case of West Nile virus from the District. The official said a 55-year-old man was confirmed to have the virus and that the patient is currently hospitalized and is in a high-risk category with a severely compromised immune system.
Experts predict that the potentially deadly virus will be in all 50 states within a year.
As of Tuesday, state health departments had released information on 89 cases of West Nile virus-related human illnesses this year, including five deaths in Louisiana.
A 76-year-old New Orleans-area woman was the fifth Louisiana resident to die from the virus. Another 14 Louisianans have contracted the mosquito-borne disease, bringing the state's total to 71.
A 22-year-old Maryland student on Tuesday became Illinois' first human case of the virus. She reported minor symptoms -- fever, achy muscles and a slight rash, and has since recovered. The woman spent eight weeks in Illinois this summer and went home to Maryland after falling ill July 26. Maryland public health officials confirmed that she had West Nile on Tuesday.
After hundreds of birds and mosquitoes around Illinois were found to have the disease this summer, Dr. John Lumpkin, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said it was "inevitable" that a human finally got it. West Nile has been found among animals in 46 Illinois counties.
"West Nile virus has certainly been a part of our reality in the state, and … it's going to be part of our reality for sometime into the near future."
Lumpkin said the chances of humans there contracting a fatal case is one in 40,000.
In Alabama, a 72-year-old Dale County was diagnosed with the virus -- the first confirmed case of a human infection in the state this year.
The man, who was not identified, was being treated for the virus, which in some people can lead to deadly encephalitis.
In other states, Mississippi has 22 confirmed human cases of West Nile. Texas has 10 cases and Arkansas has one. Since 1999, the virus has been found in birds and people in 34 states and Washington, and health officials expect it will continue spreading west.
In northeastern Florida, doctors suspect a woman may be the first person infected with the virus in that state this year.
Sandy Hudson, 18, of Crescent Beach, was tested Thursday after her doctor determined she had many symptoms of the virus, her mother, April Hudson, said Tuesday. It could be Friday before test results are received. Hudson was resting at home and recovering from flu-like symptoms. Hudson lives in St. Johns County, where officials said earlier this week that a sentinel chicken was found to have the virus.
West Nile infected 12 people in Florida last year and infected more than 400 horses and 1,000 birds.
Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has put out a set of recommendations for how humans can keep safe from the virus.
Most people bitten by an infected mosquito don't become noticeably ill, but infections can occur and some develop flu-like symptoms. The weak and the elderly can get encephalitis, a potentially fatal brain infection -- and the disease risk is higher for people 50 years of age and older.
Humans can reduce their already low risk of becoming ill from the virus by protecting themselves from mosquito bites and getting rid of standing water sources around the house.
Officials also recommend applying inset repellent containing DEET, the active ingredient in most tick and insect repellents, when outdoors. Wearing long-sleeved clothes and long pants covered in repellent can further reduce the risk, as can staying inside during peak mosquito feeding hours (dusk until dawn).
Residents also should report dead birds to state and local health departments, since over 110 species of birds have been infected with the virus. Citizens can also check to see if there is an organized mosquito control program in their neighborhoods or ask the local government to set one up if none exists.
Louisiana state officials planned to give away insect repellant to tourists at interstate welcome centers, warning that the outbreak is likely to get worse before fall brings cooler weather and fewer mosquitoes.
Two Louisiana congressmen said they received a commitment from President Bush in a private meeting to help secure federal money to fight the virus after Gov. Mike Foster declared a state of emergency last week. Democratic Rep. William Jefferson and Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin said the state needs $3-$5 million for more mosquito spraying.
The Louisiana outbreak is the deadliest since 62 people became ill and seven of them died in the first U.S. outbreak in New York in 1999.
According to the CDC, 149 cases of West Nile virus illnesses were reported and confirmed in the U.S. from 1999 through 2001, including 18 deaths.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.