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Another West Nile Virus Summer?

Eyes are turning to California as encephalitis season starts.

Preventing Infection

Work is under way on a West Nile vaccine. The vaccine farthest along uses the backbone of the existing live-virus yellow fever vaccine. That, however, may be a problem.

"The yellow fever vaccine backbone has been associated with severe adverse events in elderly patients -- multisystem organ failure," Campbell says. "That will be a thorny issue. Because now you are talking about taking that backbone and putting it into thousands of elderly Americans."

Other types of West Nile vaccine are in the early stages of development.

Meanwhile, there's a good way to make sure you don't get the West Nile virus: Avoid mosquito bites. When the blood-sucking varmints appear, limit your out-of-doors time in the early evening. When you do go out, wear long sleeves and use a DEET-containing mosquito repellent on exposed skin.

And keep mosquito populations down. Search your house and yard for places where water pools: clogged gutters, flowerpots, discarded tires, and so on. Be sure birdbaths get frequent changes of water. And keep the grass low in yards and empty lots.

It is possible to get West Nile virus from a blood transfusion, from an organ donation, or from breast milk. But these types of transmission will be vanishingly small this year. Tests of donated blood and organs keep the risk of transfusion and transplant infections very low. And the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the slight risk of West Nile transmission.

Published April 15, 2004.



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