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West Nile Virus Haunts Bug-Infested Southern States with No End in Sight

By Lianne Hart and Megan K. Stack

A 76-year-old woman became the fifth Louisiana resident to die of West Nile virus, the state’s epidemiologist said Tuesday, and 14 more people have fallen ill across the state.

The fresh cases bring Louisiana’s sick toll to 71, and make this the worst outbreak of West Nile since the disease came to the United States three years ago. This summer, the southern rite of bug bites can be a deadly affliction -- and the virus shows no sign of abating.

“This is only the beginning,” Louisiana epidemiologist Raoult Ratard said. “It won’t be surprising if we get 200 or 300 cases before it’s over.”

Mississippi has confirmed 22 cases of West Nile virus this year. Texas health officials suspect they have had 10 residents fall ill with the virus. And earlier this week, another suspected West Nile victim turned up in Arkansas, near the Louisiana border.

East Baton Rouge Parish has lost two people to the disease. A resident of Calcasieu Parish, near the Texas border, died of West Nile virus. Here in St. Tammany Parish, across the watery stretch of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, two people have died, and 18 more were infected.

Even 8-year-old Jocelyn Rojas knows those numbers by heart -- along with the warning that this year’s mosquitoes “have a disease.” Before she and her brothers step into the afternoon to walk the family dog along their heavily wooded street, they slather every inch of exposed skin with insect repellent. Nevertheless, the kids end up swatting bugs from their legs.

“You protect yourself with bug spray as best you can,” said their 36-year-old father, Eric Rojas. “We don’t stay out very long, just long enough to get in a short walk after work. When we go back to the house, we won’t come out until morning. We don’t take unnecessary risks, but you have to live your life.”

When darkness falls, the mosquito trucks come rumbling through the streets, yellow lights flashing, to spray a fine mist of pesticides over the lawns. From dusk to midnight, low flying planes blanket the 910-square mile parish with bug poison.

“Oh, it stinks,” said Jennifer Bonnell, 26. “You hate to think what’s in the stuff. But I think it’s working. I’m not noticing as many mosquitoes out there.”

At its worst, West Nile can bring on encephalitis, a fatal swelling of the brain. Most of the victims killed in Louisiana were elderly people whose immune systems were weakened by other health problems, said Charlie Anderson, Louisiana’s West Nile virus coordinator.

But more often than not, the virus is a relatively mild malady.