Pet owners are being told to make sure their dogs don?t get bitten by mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus. An 8-year-old Irish setter-golden retriever mix died of a West Nile viral infection, becoming the first canine victim in the country. A young wolf in a zoo died of the same infection, and the virus has also affected hundreds of horses. Squirrels are coming down with the disease as well. The question is?can animals spread West Nile to people?

“I think our squirrel population is going to take a hit. At this point?we don’t see an unusual risk for the spread of the West Nile virus from squirrels or dogs to humans,” says veterinarian John Andrews. “We believe the highest risk to humans is from mosquitoes, but precautions should be taken around squirrels that might be acting funny and with dogs whose health may be compromised by other immune-related diseases.?

The only person-to-person spread of the disease has come through transplanted organs and blood transfusions. Some species of birds are affected, but they can?t spread West Nile to humans. Andrews says researchers doubt that infected squirrels can develop sufficiently high concentrations of the virus in their bloodstreams to transmit it back to either mosquitoes or humans, although this is still under investigation.

West Nile has apparently caused six people to become paralyzed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says doctors should test patients for West Nile if they report sudden, painless paralysis but do not appear to have had a stroke. Most of the reported paralyses are in Mississippi and Louisiana, and occurred among middle-aged people who were previously healthy. Some of these victims lost the use of an arm or leg, while others needed ventilators to help them breathe.

Dr. Jesse Goodman of the Food and Drug Administration says all blood donations will probably be screened for the virus as soon as a test can be developed. But West Nile is much harder to detect than HIV, because there are relatively small amounts of West Nile in tainted blood.

Not all patients who receive tainted blood will become infected with West Nile. The CDC reported a case in July in which a 55-year-old woman received contaminated blood after an orthopedic procedure but never tested positive for the virus. And many healthy people who do test positive for West Nile never have any symptoms.

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