Health officials urge precautions against West Nile virus

Dr. David Orton, a veterinarian at Aire Alto vet clinic, vaccinates a horse for the West Nile virus on Monday. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth

By Mike Linn

Given the aridity of the climate in New Mexico, cases of West Nile virus in horses pales in comparison to other southeastern states. Moreover, human cases have been non-existent in the state and health officials are crossing their fingers in the hopes that this year won’t yield the first.
To limit and prevent such cases, public health officials are promoting vaccines for horses and safety measures for humans to help thwart a potentially deadly virus carried by certain mosquitoes.
Eliminating standing pools of water, using mosquito repellent and wearing long shirts and pants at dusk are among the preventative measures, health officials said.
Last year there were more than 4,000 human cases nationwide and about 280 deaths, according to Paul Ettestad, a veterinarian with the New Mexico State Public Health Department.
“People consider us in the southwest to be in an arid area, but there are some areas especially near irrigation and near some of our rivers where mosquitoes can be quite a problem,” Ettestad said. “We do have some risky areas that may not be as broad as in places in the southeast but we still have areas at risk.”
Of the 78 documented cases in horses in New Mexico last year, 12 came from Roosevelt County and seven from Curry County. On average, about one-third of the horses that obtain the virus either die or will be put down, Ettestad said.
Just last week the state yielded its first case in a horse in Sierra County, located in south central New Mexico. The discovery comes just two weeks before a stretch from August through October when the virus tends to be most prevalent, Ettestad said.
“We recommend people with horses get together with their veterinarian and try to get their horses vaccinated,” Ettestad said.
Veterinarians in the area advise horse owners to get vaccinations, and to remove standing water near stalls.
“Anything the person can do to reduce the mosquitoes population in your surrounding area will reduce your chances of your horses obtaining the virus,” said Olin Dawkins, a veterinarian based in Clovis.
Dawkins could not accurately estimate how many vaccinations he has given horses this year, but did say he’s vaccinated horses at a steady pace.
Of the humans who come down with the virus, Ettestad estimated only 20 percent will have symptoms and less than 1 percent will have what Ettestad described as serious symptoms.
“It’s the rare human cases — about one in every 150 — where serious symptoms arise and the virus actually invades into the brain and people get what is called meningitis or encephalitis,” Ettestad said. “Those cases happen more often in the elderly than any other age group. About 10 percent of those people may die from it or suffer serious neurological symptoms that don’t go away.”