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County forming committee to tackle West Nile virus

News Editor
    May 7, 2003 — The Jefferson County Commission signed off on a plan Thursday to form a citizens committee to explore the threat of the West Nile virus.
   "All indications are that we'll have it this year," Jerry Street, director of the county's health department, told the commissioners Thursday.
   Oregon is one of just four states in the continental U.S. that is yet to have a reported case — the others are Nevada, Utah and Arizona — but experts believe the sometimes deadly virus could be here as early as July.
   According to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, there have been 284 deaths nationwide out of the 4,156 human infections so far reported.
   West Nile virus is harbored in birds and spread through the bite of a mosquito. It can infect people, horses, birds and other animals, according to the CDC.
   Street said 80 percent to 90 percent of people infected are asymptomatic, meaning they show no sign of being sick. However, it can cause severe illnesses in 10 percent to 20 percent who catch it, he said, including swelling in the brain. To those people, the illness often is debilitating.
   Horses have a higher death rate, but they have what humans don't yet — a vaccine.
   The county commission likely will appoint a diverse group of individuals to its West Nile advisory committee. Street recommended including a veterinarian, an agricultural representative, a pest-control operator, a resident of Warm Springs, someone from OSU Extension, an at-large county resident and a member of the Jefferson County Commission.
   "We're going to ask the committee to understand the disease, understand the transmission and understand what options we have as a community," Street said.
   The committee will recommend a policy for addressing the virus, but ultimately, Street wrote in a letter to the county commission, "We do not have the resources to do everything that will satisfy everyone in the community and no matter what we do there will be a level of criticism."
   One option could be forming what's called a "vector management district" — which would spell out a strategy for monitoring West Nile virus activity in birds, mosquitoes, humans and animals. That kind of strategy also comes with a plan to implement mosquito-control measures, such as spraying pesticides on a wide scale.
   The committee might also mull a system of alerting the public to the virus' presence, and recommend measures for prevention and control.