Connecting Alaska to the World And the World to Alaska
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Despite huge outbreak in Lower 48, West Nile Virus has never been documented in AK

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Fairbanks, AK - Recorded cases of West Nile Virus in the Lower 48 are on the rise.  The Center for Disease Control says 2012 could be the worst year ever for the virus.  It’s a mosquito-borne illness that’s often carried by birds.  So far, every state except for Alaska and Hawaii has reported cases.  In fact, Alaska has never documented a case of the virus.

There is no telling exactly how many birds migrate to and from Alaska each year or how many mosquitoes breed in Alaska’s 287-thousand square miles of wetlands and swamps.  Some experts wonder if there is a connection between this year’s outbreak of West Nile Virus in the lower 48 and climate change.  But state epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale says it may take more than birds, mosquitoes and a changing climate to spread the virus to Alaska.  

“I think it’s hard to predict if we would ever see it and what exactly has to change for birds, mosquitoes and temperature is pretty hard to predict," she says.

According to NPR all birds are susceptible to the disease, but it’s most likely to kill corvids – birds like ravens, jays and crows.  Robins seem to spread the virus more widely than other birds, because they can breed more than once in a season.  Castrodale says those are the birds Alaska’s Department of Health focused on when they started looking for the virus nearly a decade ago.

“There was federal funding available to pursue things like testing and developing laboratory capacity in the state for that and we were fortunate to receive funding for that from 2003 to 2006,” she says.

As the Center for Disease Control learned more about where West Nile had the greatest impact, officials redistributed available funding to monitor and manage the virus.  That did not include funding in Alaska.   State and Federal authorities still monitor wildlife for the disease, but Castrodale says the Health Department isn’t worried about an outbreak this far north any time soon.

“I think at this point with what we know, about the species of mosquito, the timing of bird migration," she says. "I mean it’s a big complicated picture and so at this point we’re not worried about it.  It could be the ecology changes and we might have more concern in the future, but at this point it doesn’t seem like it’s likely in the future.”

Texas has been hardest hit this summer.  Of the nearly 1600 cases in the lower 48, more than 700 were reported in the lone star state.  More than 60 people have died from the virus this year. People who are infected can develop a lifelong immunity.  The CDC estimates that three million Americans have been infected since West Nile first came to the US in 1999.