West Nile buzz brings testing



The potential threat of the West Nile virus in King and Pierce counties has become serious enough that blood donors are now being tested for the illness.

Cascade Regional Blood Services, whose hospital clients include St. Francis in Federal Way, began the donor tests Monday.

Using technology that officials said has worked in detecting other viruses, Cascade is one of about 32 blood-supply centers nationally checking donors for the virus.

West Nile, spread by mosquitos to humans and animals by biting them, can cause fever, encephalitis (swelling of the brain) and meningitis (swelling of tissues around the spinal cord and brain). The fever isn’t serious, but the latter two conditions can result in coma, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis. The virus can also kill. Last year, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented 4,156 cases of West Nile in the United States, including 284 deaths.

The virus first was recorded in the U.S. in 1999 on the East Coast. It’s surfaced in Washington but not in King County, according to the Seattle-King County Health Department.

Many people infected with West Nile have no symptoms. Others may experience low-grade fever, headaches and body aches, skin rashes or swollen lymph nodes within three to 15 days. Children or people with weak immune systems are most susceptible to more serious complications.

Mosquito bites are the most common way of getting West Nile, but federal officials say a small number of cases likely were spread through blood transfusions and tissue donations. The Food and Drug Administration has encouraged testing by July to help curb potential transmission of the virus through blood transfusions during mosquito season.

Seattle-based Puget Sound Blood Centers began testing its donors two weeks ago and will perform Cascade’s test. It’s a “group effort,” said Kelley Caldwell, a Cascade spokeswoman.

Cascade, which has a blood donor office in Federal Way, serves serves 10 hospitals, trauma centers and clinics in the south King County area and Pierce County.

King County health officials are considering using natural substances to kill infant mosquitos in an attempt to control the mosquito population. Aerial spraying will be done only if there’s a public health emergency, which is unlikely, officials said.

People can ward off mosquitos by limiting or eliminating the amount of standing water around their homes where mosquitos can breed, and by wearing insect repellant, long-sleeve shirts and pants at dusk and dawn –– the prime times of day for mosquito bites.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565,

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