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Researchers Find First Drug To Fight West Nile Virus

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WebMD Health News

July 27, 2000 -- There's good news and bad news in the battle against the deadly West Nile virus. The bad news is that a sick child in Massachusetts is being tested for the disease. This comes days after a dead crow infected with the virus was found in Boston -- the first evidence of the virus outside of New York City.

On a brighter note, in a study that is being released early due to its potential public health implications, researchers have found the first drug able to fight the deadly West Nile virus -- at least in the laboratory. The drug, ribavirin, is already commonly used to help people with hepatitis C. Further study is needed to discover if it can work against the West Nile virus in real-life cases. The study will be published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The West Nile virus appeared for the first time in North America just last summer. The disease lives in wild birds, and mosquitos get it from biting the birds and carry it to humans.

The virus is common in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Many people in those areas build up resistance to it and can carry the virus without having any symptoms.

Last August, West Nile virus appeared in New York City, affecting 62 people, almost all of them 50 years old or older. Seven people died from the disease. In mild cases, patients experience fever, a rash, aches, and pains. In the most serious cases, the virus leads to swelling of the brain, known as encephalitis.

On Monday, mosquitoes carrying the disease were discovered in Central Park. 30,000 people were planning to attend a free outdoor concert by the New York Philharmonic, but Mayor Rudolph Giuliani canceled the concert and shut down the park so it could be sprayed with insecticide. More mosquito spraying is scheduled throughout the city.

This year, no confirmed human cases of West Nile virus have been found in North America. However, birds or mosquitoes carrying the virus have been identified in three of New York City's boroughs and several suburban counties around the city.

Some city residents are concerned about the harmful effects of insect sprays and claim New York City officials are overreacting. Timothy Babinchak, MD, doesn't think so. "This does need to be taken seriously, and attempts to limit spread of the virus are very important," he says. "Keep in mind this virus is completely new to us, since it has just been imported to this country. Therefore people haven't developed any natural immunity to it. It also has very serious consequences -- not only in terms of death, but also significant [brain] problems in people who survive. At the same time, people should not panic, because this does remain an uncommon infection." Babinchak is clinical director of infectious diseases at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

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