La Verne Magazine
Summer 2005

A Virus With Wings

by Steven Falls
photography by Reina Santa Cruz

Nothing catches the attention of a person more than a disease in the air. In the fall, it was the flu, which caused lines to form at drug stores. In summer, it is West Nile Virus, for which there is no cure or vaccination available.

It is those little pests that buzz around your ear when you are out and about on those warm summer nights. Now those pests are notorious for more than giving you itchy red bumps on your skin. Some of La Verne’s mosquitoes are now known for carrying and transmitting the feared West Nile Virus.

West Nile is transmitted by female mosquitoes and became prevalent in the United States when it was detected in New York City in the summer of 1999. Since then, West Nile has been reported in humans, birds and other carriers in 47 different states by the end of 2004.

While no one doubts the seriousness of West Nile, thanks to the intense media coverage it has received in the previous two years, in perspective, the risks compared to other human diseases and conditions are small, says Dr. Robert Neher, professor of biology at the University of La Verne. “There were 515 million cases of reported malaria last year alone and only 2,470 reported cases of West Nile,” he says. “We’re not really being badly attacked by this.”

The virus infects a mosquito when it feeds on a wild bird that has the virus within its blood system. The mosquito then transmits the virus through its saliva when it bites other animals and humans. Since birds are the main animals in which mosquitoes acquire the virus, many people wonder why birds are not affected by it. Although most birds, which are carriers of the virus, do not appear ill from the virus, there are some species that die from the virus.

“We saw birds and crows literally falling out the sky,” explains Kenn Fujioka, assistant manager of the San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District, which helps tame West Nile locally.

Last summer was considered the second year of the appearance of West Nile in Southern California. During the first year, the virus appears and begins to make a home for itself. With the second year, the virus is usually ready to explode. “The virus really needs to set up shop and start to distribute itself in the first year,” Fujioka says. “In the second year, if the conditions are right, it can really take off.”

Fortunately, the public did not witness epidemic levels of the virus since Southern California possesses excellent mosquito and vector control facilities. “The Los Angeles area is extremely fortunate because of the fact that we have extremely effective mosquito control,” Neher says.

Neher, who serves on the board at the San Gabriel Valley Control District, praised the work of the District in doing such a great job. “We don’t see many mosquitoes in town,” he says. “If someone calls in and reports a problem, we will send someone right out.”

This summer and fall, many experts are not sure what to expect. The virus performs a cycle that lasts around five to seven years, depending on climate, bird population and other varying factors. “We still need to see what happens this year,” Fujioka explains. “Eventually, the crow population will build back up, and we could have more serious cases.”

Despite excellent efforts by control districts, experts are unsure of what to expect in the long run. “What we don’t know is what will happen in 10 years,” Fujioka says. “I think the virus will be here at a low level for a long time.” Asked whether West Nile could be completely wiped out, Neher simply shakes his head in mid question and says, “No way. Once you have the virus in the environment, it is just about impossible to get rid of it.”

Already becoming a household name, the virus can be hard to detect since everyone does not display symptoms when affected. Of those who become ill from the virus, some of the mild symptoms are fever, headache and body aches. Rashes and nausea are also included in mild symptoms. Those infected with a serious case, show symptoms of extreme fever, migraines, neck stiffness, coma and tremors. Experts also add that those at greatest risk are the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. It takes between five to 15 days for the illness to become symptomatic.

Although West Nile is serious, the chances of contracting the virus are not high. Even if the virus were contracted, statistics conclude that only one out of every 150 people infected will require hospitalization. For those infected, there is a 99.3 percent chance they will not require hospitalization.

Regardless of percentages and statistics, there is still a chance that one can be harmed by West Nile, so taking precautionary measures is extremely important. Kelly Middleton, public information officer for the San Gabriel Valley Control District, stresses the importance in using insect repellent when venturing outdoors but realizes the difficulties in actually getting the public to carry out the action. “We would really like to see more cooperation out of the public,” Middleton says. “It is really tough to get people to wear repellent outside. Only 18 percent of people wear repellent more than did before.” Middleton says the public is aware of the virus. Nonetheless, “most people put if off because they think it just can’t happen to them,” she explains.

The San Gabriel Valley Control District recommends measures in order to control mosquito breeding and virus transmission. The most important is to eliminate all standing water on property. This includes the constant maintenance of swimming pools and fresh water ponds. If one has problems controlling mosquitoes on or near property, the District urges public contact. “It really all depends on how much cooperation we get with all of the people involved,” Neher says. “If people really make an effort to control it, the virus will certainly be no worse than it was at this time last year.”

Because West Nile is still relatively new on the virus scene, vaccinations are still unavailable to the public. “Vaccinations are being worked on, but it could be at least five years down the road,” Fujioka says.

More information regarding West Nile facts and safety tips are available from the San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District on the web at or by contacting them at (626) 814-9466.

Residents seeking a West Nile vaccination will have the same success as they did seeking a scarce flu shot.