Erie County's first case of West Nile Virus in five years was diagnosed last week, the Erie County Health Department confirmed Wednesday.
The department's announcement corresponds with recent confirmations from the state Department of Environmental Conservation of the virus in dead birds found in both South Buffalo and Hamburg. In August, county health officials confirmed the virus was also found in mosquitoes in Amherst.
Birds are hosts for the virus and pass it on to mosquitoes. The virus — which can in rare cases result in potentially life-threatening conditions like encephalitis or meningitis — is then transmitted to humans through a bite from an infected mosquito.
Erie County's Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein's message to the public Wednesday was "don't panic" but do stay vigilant.
“The risk of contracting West Nile Virus mosquito bite still exists and will continue through the first heavy frost," Burstein said.
There have been 16 other cases of human West Nile Virus confirmed so far this year across New York State.
It's the first reported human case in Erie County in five years, but that doesn't mean West Nile hasn't been present here all along.
Data from the state DEC and Cornell University shows there have been five cases of West Nile Virus confirmed in birds in Erie County so far this year. Four of those have affected crows, another was discovered in a screech owl, DEC officials reported.
There were five confirmations in birds last year, 10 in 2015; none in 2014 and three in 2013.
"It's not unlike past years," said Joseph Okoniewski, a biologist with the DEC's wildlife pathology unit. "It started a little later ... and picked up in August."
The last diagnosed human case came in 2012. A dozen Erie County residents were diagnosed with West Nile that year.
Once infected, the virus has to run its course.
"There are no medications to treat or vaccines to prevent West Nile Virus infection," Burstein said.
Wildlife rehabilitator Tim O'Day of the Campbell Environmental Center in North Boston said it was a matter of time before more human cases were reported.
O'Day and colleague Bernadette Clabeaux, a Medaille College biology professor and wildlife rehabilitator, told the The Buffalo News on Tuesday they've seen an uptick of calls for ill birds, including sick crows, a barn swallow and hummingbirds in recent months.
O'Day and Clabeaux retrieved sick birds during late June and July on Clark Street in Hamburg as well as Ryan Street and Covington Drive in South Buffalo. All later tested positive for West Nile.
"We have had a cluster of birds that are dying within a short period of time with the same symptoms," O'Day said. "The birds are giving us a message of what's going on in the environment."
Peter Tripi, the health department's senior public health sanitarian, said rashes of dead birds — especially crows, jays and hawks — were reported after West Nile was first documented in the United States in the late 1990s. They're not as common now because many have developed some immunity to the virus, but they can still pass it on as carriers to mosquitoes, which then transmit it to humans.
"It's kind of a vicious circle," Tripi said. "The mosquito is born without the disease. They have to bite an infected bird."
County health officials said the disease is endemic in Erie County as it is around the state.
That it's been seen in one specific location or another doesn't necessarily make those areas more prone for spreading the virus.
"If we identified it in one area of Erie County, it's probably prevalent throughout the county," Burstein said. "Mosquitoes know no boundaries."
Burstein said a Sept. 25 laboratory test confirmed Erie County's first human case this year. She wouldn't disclose any other details about the gender or age of the person affected by it or where that person lives.
"It doesn't really matter," Burstein said. "It's here."
She added: "Especially with this warm fall, Erie County residents should be cognizant of the risk of mosquito bites."
About one in five people infected with West Nile develops a fever with headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea, or rash, according to a health department statement.
Most people recover completely, but health officials said fatigue and weakness can persist for weeks or months.
Less than 1 percent of those who become infected develop serious, sometimes fatal, illnesses affecting the central nervous system.
Burstein said those are typically found among populations at greater risk for complications.
Those include people:
- over age 60;
- afflicted with certain medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease;
- or who have received organ transplants.
"The key is to minimize mosquito exposure by: limiting outdoor activities at times of high mosquito activity (dusk and dawn), covering as much skin as possible with clothing when going outdoors and using an effective insect repellent that contains 25-30 percent DEET on exposed skin," Burstein said. "By taking a few simple steps, you can reduce your risk of mosquito bites and possibly contracting a mosquito-borne disease like West Nile Virus.”