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FOR RELEASE: August 9, 2001
CONTACT: Dick Gunn
405/271-5601

Public Encouraged to Report Dead Birds on West Nile Virus Hotline

Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) officials today announced a toll-free number to begin a surveillance and testing program called “On Watch” to track the spread of West Nile Virus (WNV). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), WNV is expanding its range in a southern and western direction from the northeast United States. State health officials are encouraging the public to call 1- 800-990- CROW (2769) to report sick or dead crows, blue jays, and raptors (hawks, owls, eagles) and to get instructions on how to transport the birds for testing.

Primarily a wild bird disease, West Nile viral encephalitis is a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes. WNV is only transmitted to people through the bite of an infected mosquito, not through contact with birds. It is not spread person-to-person. To date, no WNV infections in humans or animals have been reported in Oklahoma.

“The health department and community partners have been preparing for this program since last year to implement a plan that includes surveillance, public education and mosquito control. County health departments will be prepared to respond to the WNV if and when it reaches Oklahoma,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Leslie Beitsch. Dead birds are the primary and most visible indicators that the virus is in the state. Crows and blue jays are especially sensitive to the virus and have a high mortality rate. Horses are also prone to WNV infection. OSDH has established a website www.health.state.ok.us/program/cdd/ow/index.html to coordinate with the toll free number 1-800-990 CROW (2769) that allows the public to help track WNV surveillance efforts in Oklahoma.

Although 82 persons in the U.S. have become severely ill with this mosquito-borne disease and nine have died, most people who are infected with WNV either do not get sick, or only experience mild flu-like symptoms. However, a small proportion of people, mostly those over age 50, may become ill with symptoms of encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord) and require hospitalization. “Even in areas where the disease has been reported, less than one percent of mosquitoes are infected and less than one percent of people bitten by an infected mosquito will become severely ill,” Beitsch said. The WNV has been found in 80 bird species and eight mammal species so far. Prior to August 1999, WNV had never been reported in the Western Hemisphere.

Calls placed on the “On Watch” hotline will be answered by Animal Industry Services staff at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Residents of Tulsa County who wish to report a dead bird sighting should call (918) 595-4200. If the reported bird(s) meet criteria for WNV testing, callers will receive instructions on how and where to take bird specimens. Ideally, bird specimens should be double-bagged in trash bags and placed in a refrigerator or container with ice to slow decomposition.

Community partners for the “On Watch” project include: the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, the Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, Oklahoma City-County Health Department and Tulsa City-County Health Department, local county health departments, the Oklahoma State Department of Wildlife Conservation, OSDH, and the USDA/APHIS Regional Offices of the Veterinary and Wildlife Services. OSDH is receiving $90,000 from CDC to launch the statewide WNV surveillance project as part of the epidemiology and capacity building grants given to states with renewable applications available. OSDH State Public Health Veterinarian, Dr. Kristy Bradley is heading the “On Watch” program for Oklahoma, which began in October 2000, and is coordinating with the community partners involved in the surveillance and testing program.

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