Nearly 2,000 people from neighborhoods in northeast Queens were likely to have been infected by the West Nile virus last summer, based on results of blood tests performed on residents in October.
Health Commissioner Neal Cohen said the results support city health officials' claims that the virus affects the larger community, but only a small percentage of residents, particularly seniors, are at risk of severe illness.
Cohen announced the blood test results, along with city Health Department epidemiologist Farzad Mostashari, at a news conference hosted by Borough President Claire Shulman Monday.
City health officials also fielded questions about whether or not they would again use the pesticide malathion in light of an Environmental Protection Agency study that could reclassify the chemical as a low-level human carcinogen.
The exotic West Nile virus was detected for the first time in the Western Hemisphere in New York and surrounding regions in August, with the hot zone in northeast Queens, where it claimed the lives of four elderly residents. The virus also sickened 42 others throughout the city, killed hundreds of susceptible crows and triggered a citywide war on mosquitoes which is still being questioned by anti-pesticide activists and local elected officials.
In an effort to understand how the virus might have affected the community beyond the known cases, Mostashari said the Health Department tested the blood of 470 randomly selected households in a three-square-mile area encompassing parts of Auburndale, Linden Hill, Murray Hill and Whitestone.
Out of the 677 people who agreed to anonymous testing, Mostashari said 19 of the blood samples, or about 2.6 percent, showed signs of West Nile virus antibodies. Based on those findings, the Health Department estimated between 533 and 1,903 people out of 46,220 living in the surveyed area were likely to have been infected with the virus.
Mostashari broke the numbers down further, and said that of those possible infections, about 80 percent would have had no symptoms, 20 percent would have experienced a mild, flu-like illness and less than 1 percent might have been hospitalized.
Mostashari said the results indicated the city should remain vigilant and prepare for a possible outbreak this summer.
City health officials have admitted they were ill-prepared for the 1999 outbreak. At the time, their rapid response involved spraying pesticides from trucks and helicopters to kill the mosquito population. This year with the approach of warmer temperatures, city, state and federal health officials have undertaken a comprehensive prevention plan, including surveillance of the mosquito population, birds, other animals and humans for possible resurgence of the virus.
The effort yielded results last week, when hibernating mosquitoes found at Fort Totten in Bayside showed signs of West Nile infection, an indication that the virus survived the winter and the city should gear up for another possible outbreak.
The city has also begun to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds and Cohen said a public outreach campaign on the virus and the city's preventative efforts will probably kick off in mid-April.
Health officials have not ruled out the use of pesticides and Cohen said no decisions had been made on which chemicals might be used.
Last summer's spraying proved to be a controversial solution, with health experts on both sides of the debate providing conflicting information about the safety of the pesticides used and activists claiming the pesticides sickened many residents.
Recent revelations the EPA was considering reclassifying one of the pesticides - malathion - as a low-level human carcinogen have only bolstered environmental activists claims the city was negligent.
Asked what the logic would be of choosing to use malathion this summer if the carcinogen study was ongoing, Cohen said "we certainly would not go forward to use a pesticide that had any potential, eminent risk of being labeled a human carcinogen" without consulting the EPA and other health officials.
"We will select a pesticide that is effective and one we believe will be safe with the right application," Cohen said.
There are pesticides on the market that have caused cancer under certain laboratory conditions.
Asked if the city's past use of malathion might lead to potential legal problems should it be classified as a low-level human carcinogen, Dr. James Miller of the city Health Department said the city had consulted with state and federal health officials before using it last summer.
"Clearly we're always learning new information and need to react to it," said Miller. "I don't think we could be considered guilty of not predicting the future when it comes to this chemical."
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