Few West Nile bird specimens found this season

The Northwestern Health Unit reported yesterday that it has wrapped up its West Nile bird surveillance program in Fort Frances for the year, all the while finding no specimens testing positive for the virus elsewhere.
“Fort is the only area we’ve picked up positive birds,” said Al Mathers, environmental health officer with the health unit, adding a total of seven birds turned in here have tested positive since early July.
As such, the health unit stopped accepting birds under the program here about two weeks ago, but will continue to do so in Kenora, Rainy River, Dryden and elsewhere in the two districts until the first frost.
Mathers said the point of the bird collection program was to determine where the virus had manifested in any of the communities in the health unit’s catchment area.
Once that’s been verified, there’s no point in sending in more dead birds from those areas for testing.
Mathers noted he couldn’t speculate as to why the birds testing positive have only been found in the Fort Frances area.
“It doesn’t make sense. But the fact we don’t have positive birds here, we don’t want people to get the notion that West Nile is not active here. As far as I’m concerned, it is. It’s just the birds we submitted haven’t tested positive,” he added. “I’m sure there’s birds out there that have it.”
A total of eight dead crows in both the Kenora and Rainy Rivers districts tested positive for West Nile virus last summer. In 2003, there was a total of seven.
No birds collected in Rainy River District were found to be positive in 2002, but three did from Kenora District.
That same year, two horses—one in Rainy River and the other in Devlin—were confirmed positive for the West Nile virus. A third horse from Littlefork, Mn. died due to it in 2002.
This year, the bird surveillance program started in late May. This is the fourth year for the provincially-mandated program.
Mathers stressed the health unit’s reporting of the positive West Nile-infected specimens is not a cause for alarm.
The West Nile virus is spread to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected by biting an infected bird.
The virus is not spread by person-to-person contact, and it cannot be spread directly from bird to human, said Mathers.
The risk of becoming seriously ill as a result of an infection with West Nile virus is low. In fact, most people who become infected experience no symptoms or have a very mild illness, with fever, headache, muscle weakness, or body aches.
Those at increased risk of severe illness are individuals over age 50 and people with weakened immune systems.
But since a small risk exists, precautionary measures should be taken to avoid unprotected exposure to mosquitoes and to get rid of any potential breeding sites for mosquitoes, said Mathers.
These measures include:
•removing any standing water on your property;
•avoiding being outside between dusk and dawn, if possible;
•turning over wading pools when not in use;
•ensuring eavestroughs are draining properly;
•replacing damaged screening on windows and doors;
•wearing light-coloured clothing when going outside;
•wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants between dusk and dawn; and
•using a personal insect repellent containing DEET, following the manufacturer’s label instructions carefully, especially as they relate to children.
Symptoms of West Nile virus encephalitis (the rare, serious form of the disease) include severe headache, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting, as well as altered levels of consciousness and mental states.
In related news, Mathers said the provincial campaign to monitor West Nile virus by collecting mosquito samples has been going on for a third year, with “mosquito traps” having been set up in Fort Frances, Kenora, Dryden, and the west end of Rainy River District.
To date, no West Nile virus-positive mosquitoes have been identified, but the health unit has found more specimens of the Culex tarsalis, which is a western mosquito more often found in western Canada.
“It’s not surprising they’re around in moderate numbers,” said Mathers.
The health unit will continue the mosquito trapping until it starts getting too cold at night. Mosquito activity normally drops off after the temperatures at night are at an average of 10 C, said Mathers.