West Nile virus, first found in the U.S. in New York state in the summer of 1999, belongs to a group of disease-causing viruses known as flaviviruses, which are spread by insects, usually mosquitoes.
The virus was first isolated in Uganda in 1937 and commonly is found in Africa, West Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The virus is closely related to St. Louis encephalitis, a naturally-occurring virus in the U.S. and Canada. As of September the virus had been detected in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Its range within the U.S. has grown each year.
Most people who are infected by the virus show no symptoms. Of the 20 percent who do show a recognizable illness, the symptoms are usually mild, "flu-like" symptoms such as nausea, a mild rash or fatigue.
The most severely affected patients may develop the potentially fatal conditions of West Nile encephalitis, West Nile meningitis or West Nile meningoencephalitis. Encephalitis refers to an inflammation of the brain, meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord, and meningoencephalitis refers to inflammation of the brain and the membrane surrounding it. Severe symptoms include shaking or tilted head and impaired motor skills.
Grouse are one of the 131 species known to become infected with the virus, but so far the birds' infection has been limited to one specimen in the eastern U.S. The degree to which grouse are infected, and the degree to which the virus is fatal to them, is unknown. Based on studies conducted since the virus first appeared in North America, scientists believe waterfowl may be immune to the virus.
Members of the Corvidae family (crows, blue jays, ravens) have shown the greatest mortality from the virus. Other birds in which the virus has been found include sandhill cranes, mourning doves, mallards, wood ducks, Canada geese, wild turkeys and ringneck pheasants. Certain raptors such as eagles, kestrels and redtail hawks also show high vulnerability. In Ohio, more than 125 owls were collected during a seven-day period. In Iowa, DNR conservation officers are currently fielding an abnormally large number of reports regarding dead or dying raptors. Most are kestrels, redtail hawks and owls.
"Right now the public interest in West Nile virus is simply overwhelming," said Dr. Kathryn Converse, spokesperson for the National Wildlife Health Center. "Everyone wants to know if it's safe for hunters to eat wild game birds and how is West Nile virus going to affect populations of wild birds. Unfortunately, we don't have definitive answers to either question.
"What we do know is that heat and light destroy the virus. As far as hunters are concerned, it's certainly okay to eat cooked wild game. But I suggest that hunters wear rubber gloves when cleaning game. Preventing bone punctures or protecting open cuts is just good common sense. We still don't know how a lot of bird species are reacting to this virus. Until we do we're being overly cautious when it comes to handling birds.
"In reality, the probability of a hunter bagging an infected bird is extremely low. Sick birds tend to isolate themselves and are usually not seen. Bagged birds generally represent the healthy segment of a population. The greatest health risk to humans is the mosquito. Hunters should be far less concerned about handling bagged birds than with having good mosquito protection."
Some tips that hunters should follow:
* Do not harvest or handle sick game birds.
* When cleaning game or handling live or dead birds, use gloves to prevent blood-to-blood contact, especially if you have open sores on your hands.
* Cook game birds until well done.
* Soak utensils used to prepare gamebirds in a solution of one part household bleach and 10 parts water for 20 minutes.
* Most importantly, avoid mosquitoes as they are the most likely means of acquiring the virus.
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