Leading the charge against West Nile Virus

Last year, Texas led the nation in West Nile virus reports, with the state accounting for about half the country’s cases by last August.  In Dallas County alone, 406 reports of human the virus were recorded in 2012, with 19 deaths and 183 individuals suffering the severe neuroinvasive form of the disease that can lead to meningitis, encephalitis, paralysis and coma.  In nearby Tarrant County, which includes the city of Fort Worth, 259 cases were reported, with 11 deaths and 105 individuals showing the severe form of infection.

With health officials already reporting this year’s second Texas case of West Nile Virus — found in Tarrant County on June 14 — Dallas and Fort Worth are again on high alert.  Dallas has begun targeted ground spraying in certain neighborhoods in a preventive approach, and Fort Worth officials are partnering with the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s School of Public Health for surveillance, mosquito testing and recommendations for appropriate intervention measures.

Led by UNTHSC professor Joon Lee, PhD, in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, the effort will involve mosquito collections throughout the city, testing at both the Tarrant County Public Health Department and UNTHSC labs, assessment of risk for West Nile Virus exposure, and science-based interventions to combat spread of the disease. School of Public Health students will be active in the project under Dr. Lee’s guidance.

This partnership is one of the first of its kind to bring university researchers together with city officials and the local health department to approach the problem in a collaborative, preemptive way of monitoring and enacting quick response. With recent government cutbacks in spending and workforce staffing nationwide, as well as the unpredictable, immediate and seasonal nature of a disease like West Nile Virus, academic partners like UNTHSC can be an important part of the community’s public health system, to provide professional assistance for local government in implementing science-based best practices.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of June 18, human infections had already been reported in Texas, California, Mississippi and Tennessee. So far, the other states have seen one human case of the virus, with two in Texas at this time, one being neuroinvasive.

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