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Monday, 28 October, 2002, 11:27 GMT
Killer virus 'may have reached UK'
Mosquitoes
Mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus
The West Nile virus, which has killed more than 188 people in the US so far this year, may be present in UK birds, say scientists.

However, so far, there have been no cases of the disease caught in Britain, say experts.

Oxford University researchers have found antibodies in non-migratory birds in the UK which suggest the presence of the virus.

West Nile virus is normally transmitted by mosquitoes which suck the blood of infected birds then feed on humans.

The risk of human-to-human transmission is thought to be low.

It is uncertain whether the limited mosquito population even in warmer areas of the UK could support a widespread West Nile outbreak.

Doctors have been warned to report cases in which patients display suspicious symptoms.

Fast spreading

Previous cases of the illness have occurred only in people travelling back from areas in which the disease is widespread.

The spread of the virus through bird populations in the US has caused widespread public concern in recent years.

At the present time, since its arrival in New York in 1999, 38 states have experienced cases.

So far this year, hundreds of cases have been identified, and 188 people have died.

Most vulnerable are people who are over the age of 50 or already suffering a serious illness.

Warning signs

The findings from the Oxford-based Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are due to be published in a scientific journal shortly.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said it would study the report at that point.

The Public Health Laboratory Service, which monitors the rates of infectious disease in the UK, is already asking doctors to send reports of any patients with encephalitis or viral meningitis.

The symptoms of both of these appear similar to West Nile virus.

So far, it says, no blood samples from these patients have proved positive for West Nile virus.

A spokesman told the BBC: "We have been warning doctors about this for some time.

"It is more a traveller's illness in people coming back from the US."

See also:

10 Jan 02 | Health
08 Aug 02 | Americas
28 Aug 02 | Americas
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