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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Nile virus checks stepped up
West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes
Checks on the potentially deadly West Nile virus are to be stepped up.

Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer for England, said the move was precautionary.

There have been no cases of the virus in the UK. However, it killed more than 280 people in the United States last year.

Sir Liam said the chances of it spreading to the UK are low but has ordered experts to step up their surveillance efforts.

Low risk

West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes who can pick it up from infected birds.

Although it cannot be passed from person to person it can sweep through a population.

The basis of any good plan to control a new infectious disease like this is good surveillance
Sir Liam Donaldson,
Chief Medical Officer for England

More than 4,000 cases were recorded in the US last year.

The virus usually causes only mild symptoms, but it can spread to the central nervous system and cause a potentially deadly brain inflammation called encephalitis.

Sir Liam said: "We have assessed the risks of it coming to this country, and they remain low.

"But if certain things happen, then we would have a higher risk."

Sir Liam said most of the UK was at zero risk, but two areas - the north west of England and parts of Wales - could be at particular risk if the climate changed.

"The basis of any good plan to control a new infectious disease like this is good surveillance, so we need to have our doctors aware of the symptoms and we need our laboratories to have the necessary testing in place."

Officials will be expected to keep a close eye on the mosquito and bird populations to see if they are carrying the disease.

The Health Protection Agency said it had issued advice to doctors to be on the look out for signs of the virus.

"Advice has been issued to doctors to be aware of the US situation, and to consider WNV as a possible diagnosis for unexplained cases of encephalitis and viral meningitis," said a spokeswoman.

"This may be particularly relevant in people returning from travel to the US or other endemic zones."

US spread

Scientists in the United States are working on a possible vaccine to beat the virus.

Dr Roy Campbell, of the US Centers for Disease Control, said West Nile virus was first recognised in the US in New York City in 1999. Prior to that it had only been recognised in the Eastern hemisphere.

"Since 1999 the virus has spread across the US from coast to coast, and in 2002 it caused a very large epidemic.

"It is very difficult to predict what will happen with West Nile virus in 2003. We are gearing up for another large epidemic."

The BBC's Karen Allen
"The symptoms of West Nile virus often mimic other illnesses"

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