Officials are warned
to be alert to West Nile
Agencies plan ways to deal with
the virus if it arrives in Hawaii
Since West Nile virus was first detected in the United States in 1999, it has spread from the East Coast to the West, leaving only Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii unaffected.
Damage done includes 211 people killed last year, thousands of people sick from mild to severe forms of the disease, and millions of dead wild birds, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Colorado Department of Health Service epidemiologist John Pape told health and wildlife experts meeting in Honolulu yesterday that Hawaii must try to keep the virus out but also prepare for dealing with it if it does arrive.
Colorado spent more than $670,000 to fight the disease since 2000 yet still saw 3,000 human cases in 2003, Pape said. Of those, 856 were hospitalized and 54 died.
The disease normally cycles between birds and mosquitoes, but it can affect people, horses and other mammals.
The virus causes flulike symptoms in about 20 percent of the humans infected. Less than 1 percent of people infected get a severe and sometimes fatal illness called West Nile encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.
Wildlife experts worry that the disease could wipe out Hawaii's forest birds, half of which are endangered.
"I would say the morning was very sobering about the costs and the explosiveness of it," said Lawrence Lau, the state Health Department's deputy director of environmental health.
"I think we have to work on all phases (of fighting the disease): surveillance, prevention and response," he said. "With the amount of global travel in the world, I think it's going to be real tough to keep it out."
Representatives of the state Health Department, Hawaii Conservation Alliance, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Division of Forestry & Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey, the Nature Conservancy and others planned to draft action plans for Hawaii as the two-day meeting concludes today.
Since the fall of 2002, the state has been testing dead wild birds for signs of the virus and has increased restrictions on importing birds. But more needs to be done, said Fish and Wildlife Service invasive species biologist Jeff Burgett.
"If it got here, it would just roar," he said.
Jack Jeffrey, another Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, noted: "The potential of West Nile virus getting here and what it could do is very, very scary."