Since its introduction to the United States in 1999, West Nile virus has become the major vector-borne disease in the U.S., with 770 reported deaths, 20,000 reported illnesses, and perhaps around a million people infected. The virus is transmitted by Culex mosquitoes (the “vector”) and cycles between birds that the mosquitoes feed on. Humans can also be infected with the virus when bitten by these mosquitoes.
A shift in the feeding behavior of Culex mosquitoes (their larvae amass in standing water, as seen above) helps explain the rising incidence of West Nile virus in North America. (Image: James Gathany, CDC)
Scientists have struggled to explain these large outbreaks in the U.S., which stand in stark contrast to the sporadic European infections. In a new study published in the open access journal PLoS Biology, Drs. Marm Kilpatrick, Peter Daszak, and colleagues now present evidence that the major vector of West Nile virus in the USA, Culex pipiens mosquitoes, change their feeding behavior in the fall from their preferred host, American robins, to humans, resulting in large scale outbreaks of disease.
These feeding shifts appear to be a “continent-wide phenomenon,” the researchers conclude, and may explain why West Nile virus outbreaks are so intense in the U.S. compared to Europe and Africa, where the virus originates.
Paul Ocampo | alfa
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