Risk map will help predict encephalitis outbreaks

VERO BEACH---The risk of a widespread St. Louis encephalitis epidemic in Florida this year is almost nonexistent, says a medical entomologist with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

New York City also will likely be spared a repeat of last summer's epidemic of West Nile virus, a close relative of St. Louis encephalitis, predicts Jonathan Day, a mosquito researcher at UF's Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach.

Weather conditions are expected to keep both mosquito-borne diseases in check along the East Coast, Day said. His predictions are based partly on an encephalitis risk map he is developing as part of a project funded by NASA.

Day is combining satellite surveillance data from NASA, weather information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and a map of North America to develop a tool that could be made available nationwide via a Web site.

The map would change as various indicators for encephalitis show up or disappear across the country. The hope is that a risk map could provide valuable time for officials to educate residents about the risk of encephalitis and prevent an outbreak.

Mosquitoes get the encephalitis virus from infected birds and pass it on to humans. Encephalitis starts as a flu-like illness but can progress to a fatal inflammation of the brain. Most people never exhibit symptoms but some develop muscle weakness, tremors, confusion and paralysis that can lead to nerve damage and death.

"During most years, encephalitis is not a problem," Day said. "But in regions where it cycles in wild birds, encephalitis epidemics can erupt explosively; they can happen very quickly, and there can be thousands of human cases.

"South Florida is always a potential St. Louis encephalitis hot spot, but you also see it in Illinois, Louisiana, Texas and Colora

Contact: Jonathan Day
University of Florida

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