In 2010, 35 people in Greece died from a West Nile virus (WNV) outbreak, with a further 262 laboratory-confirmed human cases. A new article published in BioMedCentral's open access journal Virology Journal examines whether wild or migratory birds could have been responsible for importing and amplifying the deadly virus.
WNV is a flavivirus of major public health concern, spread through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Discovered in Uganda in 1937, it was only sporadically reported up until the 1990s, after which disease outbreaks were reported world-over, leading to WNV being given epidemic status. Studies have shown that humans infected with WNV do not have viremia levels high enough to infect new mosquitoes and hence pass on the virus. Birds, however, do develop viremia levels sufficient to infect mosquitoes, hence serving as amplifying hosts for WNV.
In order to investigate whether wild birds were exposed to WNV prior to the 2010 outbreak in Greece, Charalambos Billinis and his co-authors tested serum and tissue samples from 295 resident and migratory wild birds harvested by hunters prior to and during the outbreak. These samples were collected for the purposes of the authors' participation in an FP7 EU wildlife diseases research project ("WildTech"). All sampling sites were in flying distance for avian species. Using immunofluorescence assays and virus neutralization tests to analyze samples for the presence of WNV-specific antibodies, the authors found 53 avian samples with WNV neutralizing antibodies. Importantly, 14 positive serum samples were obtained from birds up to 8 months prior to the human outbreak, and genetic determinants of increased virulence were present in these samples.
Source: BioMed Central