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West Nile has locals concerned

Dennis Webb

Although the West Nile Virus has yet to cross the Continental Divide, it is already crossing the minds of Garfield County residents, particularly if they own horses.”This is my cocktail conversation every night,” said Kathy Weiss Stephenson, owner of Crystal Springs Ranch & Saddlery, southeast of Glenwood Springs.People are wondering why so many horses have died of the mosquito-borne disease in Colorado, said Stephenson.Her answer is that they are unaware of the danger, not getting good information from their veterinarians, too cheap to pay for the vaccinations to prevent the disease, or unable to afford it.Whatever the reason, “I think it’s terrible, gross neglect of your animals” to not get them vaccinated, she said.”It upsets me terribly. We inoculated ours back in May,” said Stephenson.Stephenson said horse owners had plenty of warning about the impending arrival of the disease, which reached Colorado this month after working its way west this year.Dr. John Canning, a large animal veterinarian based in Carbondale, said he’s become quite busy providing vaccinations in the last two weeks, when he’s administered about 400 doses.”The phone’s ringing off the wall. A lot of people are finally realizing they’ve got to get the vaccine going,” he said.

Thirty-three horses have contracted the disease in Colorado so far, and eight have died. Three birds, including one in Denver, also have died from it in the state.The virus is now in 41 states. It also threatens humans, and has killed 24 people nationwide, and infected 480 in 21 states and the District of Columbia.There have been no human cases reported in Colorado.Canning is glad that at least horses are a “dead-end” host of the disease, meaning that they can’t pass it back to mosquitoes, and thus to other animals including humans.He is most concerned about the danger the virus poses to humans.”I think from a public health standpoint we really need to be cautious and alert to that,” he said.No human vaccination is available. However, most mosquitoes don’t carry the disease, and most humans who are infected do not become ill.The problem is that in rare cases, the virus can cause serious brain infection such as aseptic meningitis or encephalitis, resulting in possible brain damage or death. Most deaths occur in persons over 50 years of age. There is no treatment available for the disease except supportive care.Symptoms don’t come on for 5 to 15 days. In the case of a brain infection, they begin with a high fever and headache, and may progress to a stiff neck, disorientation, tremors and a coma.More commonly, the virus produces a less serious viral fever marked by fever, headache and malaise, lasting two to seven days.Garfield County Public Health Nurse Sandra Barnett said her office has received no more than 10 calls from people wanting information about the virus, or having found a bird that they fear may carry it.The family of birds called corvids, which include jays, magpies, ravens and crows, are carriers of the disease. Unlike other “dead-end” hosts, which include humans, the virus can spread from birds to other animals via mosquitoes.Some of the callers to the county Public Health Nurses office were concerned about dead birds that turned out not to be corvids. Barnett said only one dead bird feared to have West Nile Virus has been sent to her office. The carcass was sent to state public health officials, and determined not to be infected.”There’s not a lot of what I would call hysteria like there was with hantavirus, when that came along,” said Barnett. “People were really eager to turn in mice,” which were carriers of that disease.

Anyone who has come across a dead bird and isn’t sure if it is a corvid is asked to keep the carcass cool and contact the Public Health Nurses Office at 625-5200 or 384-5002 to have it examined.Gloves should be worn while handling the birds.Barnett said some of the callers to her office want to know what they can do to minimize the danger of being infected by a mosquito.Mosquito protection measures include eliminating standing water where the insects can breed outside homes, using repellents, wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts, and avoiding being outside at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes commonly feed.Some of these same measures can help protect horses. Repellents are available for them, and it’s good to bring them inside stables when mosquitoes are most prevalent.Linh Truong, spokesperson for the state Department of Agriculture, said the rapid spread of the disease makes mosquito control for horses an important component of preventive efforts. That’s because two vaccination shots are required for the vaccine to be fully effective, and they are given six weeks apart.Canning said vaccination of horses is all the more important locally because of the high number of second home owners, which results in many horses being shipped to states where the virus is more widespread.

He said he’s had no trouble so far keeping an adequate supply of vaccine on hand.Canning has had no local calls yet from people concerned that their horses have been infected. Health officials hope the virus won’t reach the Western Slope before the mosquito season ends in a few weeks.Canning has heard that the virus may have been found in a Grand Junction horse, and Truong has heard the same speculation. But she said there have been no confirmed cases, and the speculation is “very premature.”She is aware of one case that has raised concern in Grand Junction, but said it’s unclear whether the animal even has shown any symptoms associated with the disease, and she doesn’t believe any tests have been done.Due to the current concern over the virus, it’s likely that people who have lost a horse will speculate that the virus is the reason, said Truong.Symptoms for horses are similar to those experienced by humans. Canning said the virus causes what’s commonly called “sleeping sickness,” because the horse goes into a stupor, blindly staggering around in circles and walking into things.”It’s a nasty way to go,” said Canning.Muscle tremors in the neck and shoulder also can be a symptom.As with humans, younger horses are probably more likely to survive the virus than older ones, Canning said.Spotting symptoms early doesn’t necessarily increase the chances of survival, he added.


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