Authorities fear West Nile's fast pace
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- Health officials expressed concern Monday the West Nile virus may be moving at a faster rate and infecting younger people than expected.
The mosquito-borne illness has killed four people in the United States this year, all last week in Louisiana.
"We're at 58 confirmed cases right now. I expect that by tomorrow we may be looking at an additional 20 or so ... and we've only been at it for three weeks," David Hood, secretary for Louisiana's Health and Hospitals Department, told CNN.
And, he noted, "we have about three months left of warm weather here in Louisiana."
The West Nile virus was discovered in Uganda in 1937, then found its way to New York City in 1999, Hood said. That New York City outbreak was the largest outbreak in the nation's history, resulting in 62 cases, including seven deaths.
The virus has since spread by migrating birds, scientist believe. It was found near New Orleans in 2001.
"We were expecting we would see an outbreak in 2002, but maybe not of the magnitude we're seeing now," Hood said.
Jim Hughes, the director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, said there have been 88 cases reported in the United States this year -- most of them in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.
"This is more cases than have occurred in the three previous years," Hughes told CNN. "We are concerned about what the remainder of the year holds in store for us."
The Mississippi-Louisiana-Texas area, he added, "is a part of the country that is particularly susceptible to mosquito-borne virus transmission."
The West Nile virus is now in nearly every state east of the Mississippi, Hood said, and experts predict it's only a matter of time before California will report its first cases of the potentially fatal virus.
People over 50 and those with compromised immune systems are usually hardest hit by the virus, which can bring high fever, encephalitis and death.
But the latest cases are not reflecting that pattern, and "most of the West Nile experts think [all ages] are probably equally at risk for getting infected," said Dr. Erin Brewer, a Louisiana regional medical director.
Of those people in Louisiana with symptoms severe enough to seek treatment -- including high fever and encephalitis -- Brewer said the age breakdown was:
There were three other cases for which no data on age was available, she said.
In a Monday teleconference, Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the cases in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have raised concerns because they have occurred earlier in the year than expected and are showing up in younger people.
"But, it's too soon to say for sure if there is any change in the pattern," Gerberding said.
"It definitely makes us concerned about what is yet to come, and that's why we're trying to get the message out [for people] to practice sensible precautions when they go outdoors and make sure their homes are protected [from mosquitoes]," Brewer said.
Experts emphasized that the rates of infection remain quite low because only 1 percent of mosquitoes carry the disease, and in the event a person is bitten by a carrier insect, the chance of developing serious symptoms is less than 1 percent.
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