NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- Louisiana health officials Tuesday reported a fifth death from the West Nile virus, as the state battled the largest outbreak of the disease since it first surfaced in the United States three years ago.
Confirming the identification of 14 new cases of the virus since his last update, David Hood, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said total confirmed cases in the state now stand at 71. Five people in Louisiana have died from the virus. The latest was a 76-year-old woman who lived in St. Tammany Parish, north of New Orleans.
With the latest cases, Louisiana has surpassed what previously was the most serious outbreak of West Nile virus in the United States. New York recorded 62 cases and seven deaths in 1999, which was the first notable outbreak in this country.
Although Louisiana has the largest outbreak, 22 human cases have also been confirmed in neighboring Mississippi. Tests are also being conducted on 10 possible cases in Texas and one in Arkansas.
The West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne disease that in severe cases can produce a form of encephalitis. Because of Louisiana's long summers and propensity for frequent rains, the state may be more vulnerable than some other areas to outbreaks of such disease. Heavy rains in coastal areas of the state in recent days, produced by Tropical Storm Bertha in the Gulf of Mexico, have created a still more favorable environment for the disease.
With considerable hot weather ahead, Louisiana likely will see the numbers rise, state health officials said.
"I'm sure the numbers are going to go up," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, the state's senior epidemiologist. "There are about three months of warm weather left in Louisiana. We are no doubt going to see a substantial increase."
Ratard declined to estimate how many cases are likely to arise, but said, "We believe the numbers are going to be in the hundreds."
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are assisting the Louisiana Health Department in identifying new West Nile cases and helping the state mount its response.
Because no effective course of treatment has yet been developed to counter the virus, officials say their best bet in controlling the disease is preventing its occurrence. To that end, mosquito control efforts have been stepped up. However, some local governments already have exceeded their budgets for mosquito control, and state officials are hoping for federal assistance.
The state has requested $13.7 million in mosquito-fighting funds from the Federal Office of Emergency Management. Hood said, however, "We have not heard from FEMA and have no idea whether we will."
"The money would be invaluable in helping local authorities that are going to very quickly deplete their resources with spraying and mosquito abatement," Hood said.
Officials are boosting their public communications efforts in order to alert as many people as possible to the danger they could face if they fail to take proper precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes infected with the virus.
Health officials continue to urge people who must be outdoors for any length of time to protect themselves by wearing long pants and long-sleeved clothing and applying insect repellent on exposed skin. They also say it is important to empty regularly any containers, such as those that hold potted plants, where water can collect and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Despite the rising number of cases, Ratard noted that panic is not warranted and that most cases of West Nile viruses are not fatal. The elderly, the very young and persons with immune deficiencies may be more vulnerable to contracting West Nile encephalitis if bitten by an infected mosquito. But most people who come into contact with the virus do not develop encephalitis, which affects the central nervous system by attacking brain cells and producing inflammation, Ratard said.
He said a milder malady, known as West Nile fever, is far more common and produces symptoms including mild headaches, body aches and fever, and possibly some swelling of the lymph glands.
Ratard added that people who may have been exposed to West Nile virus and who develop such symptoms should not bother seeking a doctor's care. "There is nothing you can do," he said. "We don't have a drug to (counteract) the virus."
He said persons who develop more serious symptoms, such as a "huge headache," sensitivity to light, a stiff neck and a mildly confused mental state or feeling of disorientation should see a doctor immediately for help in managing the symptoms.
Hood said that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who also serves as head of the state's tourism office, Tuesday announced measures to help protect tourists who drive into the state in coming weeks. Blanco has arranged for cans of insect repellent to be made available free of charge at visitor centers near the state lines, Hood said.