Florida drops West Nile alert


Published: Tuesday, January 6, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 6, 2004 at 12:51 a.m.
A medical alert warning Florida residents in 29 counties to protect themselves against mosquito-borne viruses has been dropped, state health officials announced Monday.
The alerts were lifted based on a considerable drop in new activity and falling temperatures throughout the state, according to Health Secretary John Agwunobi.
"Although we are standing down, we urge everyone to take prudent precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes, particularly at dusk and dawn," he said.
Agwunobi said 89 human cases and six deaths due to West Nile virus had been recorded in Florida in 2003. That compares with 28 cases with two deaths reported in 2002. Two additional cases in the Panhandle have been reported and tests are under way to determine if they, too, are due to the mosquito-borne virus.
"Because there have been no new cases since the onset of those two in November, we are dropping our West Nile alert," he said.
One Alachua County resident contracted West Nile virus in 2003. Elsewhere in North Central Florida, one case was reported in Lafayette County, two in Marion and one each in Suwannee and Union counties.
Fifty-two of Florida's 67 counties also reported Eastern equine encephalomyelitis, or EEE, virus activity. The mosquito-borne virus affected more than 200 horses statewide in 2003. People can also be infected with EEE, and two human cases were reported last year.
Agwunobi added that in 2003, the third year that West Nile activity had been recorded in Florida, the state saw a fairly significant increase in the number of cases - about twice that of the year before. "Still," he added, "we were expecting more cases than we ended up having. In fact, we saw only about one-tenth of the cases we'd calculated we'd see."
Agwunobi said he is not sure what that trend indicates.
"This is an emerging disease and there is still a lot that we have to learn," he added.
Among the questions that health officials and researchers hope to answer is whether the march of West Nile virus southward from New York, where it was first reported in the United States in 1999, to Florida in 2001, followed by the 2002-2003 march across the country, is related to the migratory patterns of birds.
"We also expect that there is some species of animal or mosquito which harbors this virus year-round," Agwunobi said. "We see an uptick in activity starting in late spring, with the first cases in early July, and activity peaking in late October."
The state health chief said that the Department of Health will continue to follow arbovirus activity throughout the year. "If there is any change, we will reinstitute the medical alerts on a state-by-state basis," he said.
Alachua County's health director, Tom Belcuore, urged residents to avoid mosquito bites by covering their arms and legs when outdoors at dawn or dusk, using a mosquito spray containing DEET, and ridding outdoor areas around their homes of any standing water.
"It's only prudent," Belcuore said. "Let's face it - mosquitoes in Florida are a reality year-round."

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