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CDC: West Nile death toll reaches 98

More than 2,000 people diagnosed with virus, officials say

More than 2,000 people diagnosed with virus, officials say

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CNN's Ed Lavandera reports on efforts to control West Nile virus in Louisiana. (August 4)
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The number of deaths linked to the West Nile virus in the United States this year has risen to 98, federal health officials said Tuesday.

The CDC said Tuesday that 2,072 people have been diagnosed with West Nile virus in the United States this year. Illinois has had the most deaths, with 27. Louisiana and Michigan have had 11 each.

"Our concern for the human toll of this disease is enormous," CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told lawmakers Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions joined with the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Governmental Management, Restructuring in a hearing looking into the challenges the virus presents to public health. Joining the committees were officials representing the District of Columbia.

"It is extraordinarily unlikely that the impact of West Nile would ever even get into the same radar screen" as diseases such as flu and HIV Aids, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "It's not going to wipe out scores of millions of people, but it is an evolving disease," he said.

Health officials said they suspect tens of thousands of people nationwide have contracted West Nile virus, but most cases are never diagnosed. Most people experience few or no symptoms.

The CDC estimates that only 20 percent of the people infected with the virus show any symptoms, and about one in 150 people go on to develop severe symptoms. Those cases generally involve older people and those with weakened immune systems. In those instances, the virus can prove fatal. Health officials also have determined the virus can cause paralysis.

Mosquitoes carry the virus, but the CDC has said it appears likely that some people contracted West Nile through organ transplants and blood transfusions. Blood banks are taking special precautions to try to weed out donors who may have symptoms of the virus. (Full story)

The task will be daunting, said Dr. Jesse L. Goodman, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Biologics, Evaluation and Research. "No validated test is currently available for donor screening," he said. "Such screening of a large number of samples cannot be implemented overnight."

Mosquito control units throughout the country are working to clear out standing water where mosquitoes may be breeding. Most of the trouble spots are likely found in back yards, Gerberding said.

"Most of the mosquitoes transmitting this virus live in the suburban back yard," she said.

Many states have launched public service campaigns encouraging people to wear long pants and long sleeves when outside and to use bug sprays containing the chemical DEET, which health officials said helps keep mosquitoes away.

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