The worst West Nile virus season that Oklahoma has ever seen is over, a state Health Department official said Thursday.
Over the past few weeks, there haven’t been any new cases reported of the mosquito-borne virus reported in people or horses, a good sign that mosquitoes are dormant for now, said Kristy Bradley, the state epidemiologist at the state Health Department.
This year, Oklahoma saw 177 reported cases of West Nile virus and 12 confirmed deaths related to virus. The state’s previous record was 107 cases in 2007.
Bradley said the state might see a few more reported cases or deaths, but those would be from open cases that occurred during West Nile virus season that the state Health Department is still investigating.
The lesson that public officials can learn from this year’s West Nile virus season is one about the allocation of resources, Bradley said.
Before this year, the state Health Department had a federal grant to pay for mosquito surveillance. This allowed workers to travel Oklahoma, collect mosquitoes and report back whether any mosquitoes were carrying West Nile virus.
But because of federal funding cuts, the state Health Department could no longer finance the surveillance lab, which meant the agency was limited on its knowledge of the presence of West Nile virus.
Until a McAlester man was first to contract West Nile virus in June, the state Health Department did not know that mosquitoes in Oklahoma were carrying the virus.
Bradley said these types of funding cuts are the typical cycle of disease outbreaks. There’s a heightened public awareness about a disease, and more money is set aside to combat it. But once the number of reported cases decreases, state and federal funding declines.
And unlike the flu, West Nile is cyclical, peaking every three to four years for reasons that aren’t quite understood.
“In ideal world, we would be able to understand the importance of maintaining those resources more consistently and not just a reaction to a disease crisis,” Bradley said.
Keeping money around for mosquito surveillance isn’t important only because of West Nile virus, Bradley said. There are other mosquito-borne viruses, such as Dengue fever, that could cause widespread illness similar to West Nile, Bradley said.
Dengue has emerged as a worldwide problem only since the 1950s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dengue rarely occurs in the continental U.S. but is endemic in Puerto Rico, and in many popular tourist destinations in Latin America and Southeast Asia, according to the CDC. Chikungunya virus is not currently found in the U.S.
Having an active and funded mosquito surveillance program would allow the state to be more aware of West Nile virus, Dengue and other mosquito-borne illnesses, Bradley said.
“That had been the goal and overall objective in our program when we set it up — that we would have that understanding that it would have flexibility in case we needed to switch to another mosquito-borne disease,” Bradley said.