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Florida on alert for mosquito-borne virus


Disney World makes changes to prevent encephalitis

August 27, 1997
Web posted at: 7:42 p.m. EDT (2342 GMT)

ORLANDO, Florida (CNN) -- Two types of encephalitis have been reported in Florida, leading health officials to issue public alerts and prompting one of the world's most popular theme parks, Walt Disney World, to make changes in its operations.

The virus that causes St. Louis encephalitis, a mosquito-borne illness that attacks the brain and spinal cord, have been found in chickens in eight central Florida counties. These "sentinel" chickens are kept in cages where mosquitoes thrive and are checked periodically for the virus.

There have been no reports of an outbreak of St. Louis encephalitis among humans. But two people in Florida, one in Hamilton County, the other in Putnam County -- have contracted a different form of encephalitis, called Eastern Equine encephalitis.

However, Dr. Duane Gubler, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's insect disease tracking unit in Fort Collins, Colorado, told CNN that those two cases were spread by mosquitoes.

The last outbreak of St. Louis encephalitis in Florida, in 1990, killed 11 people and sickened 223 others. State health officials say outbreaks occur about every 10 years.


The counties where the virus has been detected in chickens include Brevard, Charlotte, Hendry, Indian River, Lee, Martin, Orange and Palm Beach.

Officials in Orange County -- where Orlando and Walt Disney World are located -- issued a health alert Monday.

Bill Toth of the Orange County Public Health Department said that in 1990, encephalitis cases in humans began about three to six weeks after the virus was first detected in the "sentinel" chickens.

"We're concerned. We want to make sure everyone is protected," Toth said. The most critical time to avoid exposure is at dusk and during the nighttime hours, when the mosquitoes are active, he said.

As a result, Disney is closing swimming pools at 7 p.m. and shutting down all golf courses one hour before dusk. The park is also spraying for mosquitoes and distributing advisory fliers to visitors.

The Orlando-Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau has alerted area hotels and attractions about the encephalitis situation.

People who contract St. Louis encephalitis often come down with flu-like symptoms and suffer from headaches, seizures, vomiting and drowsiness. There is no known treatment. Among people younger than age 70, the fatality rate is about 6 percent, but that jumps to 20 percent for those 70 or older.

According to the CDC, the best advice for people to avoid contracting St. Louis encephalitis is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. The most effective way to do that is to use an insect repellent containing the chemical DEET, although high doses of DEET are not recommended for small children.

Health officials are also advising people to stay inside after dusk, avoid swampy and wooded areas, wear long sleeves, and remove any standing pools of water from around their houses.

Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.

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