West Nile virus

West Nile virus, microorganism and the infection resulting from it, which typically produces no symptoms or a flulike condition. The virus is a flavivirus and is related to a number of viruses that cause encephalitis. It usually is transmitted through the bite of several mosquito species, and can infect humans and more than 200 animal species, including alligators, horses, and many common birds. A number of North American bird species, including the blue jay, crow, and house sparrow, act as reservoirs of the virus.

About one fifth of humans infected with the virus develop West Nile fever, which in most people is characterized by fever, headache, muscle ache, joint pain, nausea and vomiting, and in some cases rash and swollen lymph nodes (swollen glands). Less than 1% of all persons infected may develop a severe case, progressing to encephalitis or meningitis, about a week after the initial symptoms of West Nile fever appear. Loss of vision, tremors and convulsions, paralysis, coma, and, in some cases, death may result. Older persons and persons with a weakened immune system are most susceptible to severe cases of the disease, and they may suffer from longer-term effects including weakness and fatigue, headaches, memory loss and confusion, and depression. There is no treatment or vaccine for the virus except to alleviate the symptoms; controlling the mosquitoes that carry the disease is the most effective way to limit its spread.

West Nile virus was first identified in 1937 in the West Nile district of Uganda. It was subsequently found in much of the rest of Africa, the Middle East, and warmer regions of Asia and Europe. Its first recorded appearance in the United States was in Queens, N.Y., in 1999, and it since has spread to most of the United States and neighboring areas in North America.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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