Pa. officials: 2012 could be worst year ever for West Nile virus

    Public health officials say 2012 could be a record year for West Nile virus outbreaks.

    Nationwide, 26 people have died from the mosquito-borne illness, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control.

    Pennsylvania hasn’t had any fatal cases this year, but state officials say that may not be the case for long.

    “Pennsylvania is on track to exceed its highest recorded year ever, which was 2003,” says Amanda Witman, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. That year, there were 237 reported cases of West Nile virus in Pennsylvania, resulting in nine deaths.

    This year, Witman says, “the weather over the last 10 months has really produced the perfect storm for mosquito proliferation.”

    Eight Pennsylvanians have fallen ill with West Nile virus this year. For all of last year, there were seven cases. And it’s still early in the season, officials say.

    Still, the DEP says current mosquito control efforts are going on as planned.

    “We are not going to be utilizing any emergency funds to control the mosquito population at this point,” says Witman.

    But that could change, according to Dr. Stephen Ostroff, Pennsylvania’s acting physician general.

    If the situation worsens in the coming weeks, he says more insecticide could be deployed. Ostroff points to Texas as a worst-case scenario. So far this year, 336 Texans have been infected with the virus and 14 have died.

    For now, Ostroff urges caution.

    “Right now is the time when we’re entering the highest risk period,” Ostroff says. “So our advice for everybody that’s engaged in outdoor activities is to protect yourself from mosquito bites,” with either bug repellent or extra clothing.

    Ostroff says the elderly or people with compromised immune systems should consider staying inside during peak mosquito times at dawn and dusk.

    Of the eight reported West Nile virus cases this year, five have suffered from the more severe form of illness — swelling in the brain or the lining around the brain, according to Ostroff.

    The latest case of West Nile in Pennsylvania was reported in Bucks County last week. The county’s West Nile virus coordinator, Philip Smith, says new federal regulations are hampering local control efforts.

    “There are areas of the county that I would very much like to spray,” Smith says. “However, I have to understand and remain within the confines of the new requirements.”

    With a nearby human positive, Smith says the new threshold for spraying is lessened.

    Monday night, crews from Bucks County and the state DEP will be spraying in Falls Township, near Trenton. Smith says parts of the township have tested positive for West Nile.

    Spraying is also planned for parts of Delaware and Chester counties Tuesday evening.

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