Local scientists study possible mutations in West Nile

Published: Aug. 24, 2012 at 9:51 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 31, 2012 at 10:35 PM CDT
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New Orleans, La. - Scientists already know the mild winter and wet weather are pumping up the population of mosquitos, which can carry the West Nile virus.  Now they're wondering whether the virus itself is mutating.

Mosquito control workers in Orleans Parish collect thousands of bugs each week.  Some of them go to Dr. Dawn Wesson, associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University.

"We take those mosquitoes in at the lab and they're tested for virus," says Wesson. "At that point we can actually isolate virus directly from the mosquitoes and we don't have to worry about a second-hand sample that may not have virus in it anymore."

Wesson is looking at the characteristics of West Nile and what could be behind the increasing number of infections this year.

Scientists already know the mild winter and wet weather are pumping up the population of mosquitos.  Now they're wondering whether the virus itself is mutating.

"There are some indications that there may have been some recent mutations but we don't know what they mean yet," says Wesson. "There do look to be some differences from the last couple of years.  The lab is still characterizing those differences."

The state Department of Health and Hospitals released its latest numbers Friday.  Health officials confirmed 53 new cases of West Nile and three more deaths in the last week.

That brings the total of infections across Louisiana to 145 for the year.  Nine people have died from the virus.  And we haven't yet reached the peak of the season.

"I think that's the concern everyone has is since we're early in the season," says Dr. Joe Guarisco, Chairman of Emergency Medicine at Ochsner. "The concern is that late into the fall we might see a lot more."

Guarisco says the emergency rooms are seeing more patients complaining of the symptoms of West Nile, but few actually have it.

"There's a lot of hype about West Nile and appropriately so," he says. "It's a significant illness if you're sick so we're having a lot of fear and concern and anxiety about it.  So we're seeing patients who think they have West Nile, patients who want to be tested, who want the answer, there's a lot more of that than actual cases."

The chances of getting seriously ill from West Nile are still low. Less than one percent of the population will develop severe symptoms.  But doctors are researchers say, as this busy bug season continues, you should protect yourself from mosquito bites.