West Nile Funding Cuts in Okanagan

June 3, 2010, 8:51 a.m.

West Nile funding cuts concern North Okanagan

Most people get West Nile virus after being bitten by a mosquito  that has fed on an infected bird.

Most people get West Nile virus after being bitten by a mosquito that has fed on an infected bird. (CBC)

The B.C. government has scaled back its attack on the West Nile Virus to cover only southern regions, and that has left others in the north worried they'll be unprepared for an outbreak.

Last year, B.C.'s first two indigenous cases of West Nile were both detected in the province's South Okanagan region.

Environmental health researcher Cheryl Phippen says that outbreak coupled with the forecast for a hot summer this year could point to a bigger outbreak this year.

"If we get the hot weather then we do have the potential for a lot of West Nile activity in the Southern Okanagan," said Phippen, who reports on the spread of the virus for regional districts in B.C.

But the provincial government is only funding mosquito control programs in four regional districts, according to Ken Cooper at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, instead of giving West Nile prevention funding to all communities in B.C. like it has done since 2005.

The province says it's zeroing in on the highest-risk areas by targeting funding for regional districts in the Fraser Valley, Metro Vancouver, the Central Okanagan and Okanagan-Similkameen areas.

"The mosquitoes that we're concerned about are in the southern part of the province. They tend not to be in the northern parts of the province," said Cooper.

"The northern health authority, in recent years, really hasn't been doing much in the way of West Nile virus work because it's just not really an issue for them," said Cooper.

But that has left areas that aren't funded worried about West Nile spreading to their communities and having no money to deal with the problem.

The North Okanagan Regional District didn't get prevention funding and that troubles the district manager of environmental services Nicole Kohnert.

"We do see the carrier mosquito in our area. We have seen them in our traps over the last several years for sure. We do have concerns that the carriers are still here and that the residents, businesses and tourists are still at risk," said Kohnert.

"There's no reason why it wouldn't move north," she said.

North Okanagan District board member Herman Halvorson says residents are concerned.

"I have constituents that phone me on a regular basis wondering what we're doing about it. And of course we got our funds rescinded … and I'm sort of wondering why. Because in my area, it's just as serious as it is in Kelowna or the Okanagan-Similkameen."

The district has pleaded with the province to reinstate the funding, but Halvorson said that so far there has been no response.

Virus carried by mosquitoes and birds

Most people get the West Nile virus after being bitten by a mosquito that has fed on an infected bird. The virus can cause fatal inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or the membranes covering the brain or spinal cord (meningitis) in more than 100 bird species and nine mammals, including humans, horses and gorillas.

The virus was discovered in the West Nile area of Uganda in 1937, then spread to Mediterranean and temperate parts of Europe. In 1960, it was observed in horses in Egypt and France. Between the 1950s and 1999, there were sporadic epidemics in Israel, South Africa, Romania and Russia.

Scientists in North America had assumed we were facing an African strain when it was discovered here in the late 1990s. Then birds across Canada and the U.S. started falling from the sky. That pointed to Israel, where the strain can cause more dangerous results than the traditional encephalitis symptoms.



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