Clinton seeks $1M for West Nile research

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At the urging of a U.S. senator from Connecticut, President Clinton has asked Congress to allocate $1 million to research the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, which was first detected in the Western Hemisphere last summer in Queens and surrounding regions.

On other fronts, the five boroughs braced for a springtime resurgence of the West Nile virus with the city finding funds for a comprehensive mosquito-monitoring program and Flushing Hospital holding a top-level summit on the disease for doctors from the metropolitan area.

"It is crucial that this outbreak is seen as a national concern, not merely an isolated regional problem," said U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) last Wednesday when he announced Clinton's budget request for fiscal year 2001.

"This funding, if approved by Congress, will allow public health agencies to anticipate exactly when and where the disease might return and take preventive action that could save lives," Lieberman said.

This past summer the city was plagued by an outbreak of what was first identified as the mosquito-borne St. Louis Encephalitis but was later reclassified as the first recorded appearance of West Nile virus in the Western Hemisphere. The hot zone was in northeast Queens. Four elderly borough residents were killed and dozens of others sickened.

The virus was also responsible for the deaths of birds throughout the New York region, including southern Connecticut.

Lieberman requested that Clinton support West Nile virus research following a hearing on the outbreak he hosted in Fairfield, Conn. last December.

Lieberman said Clinton has asked Congress to allocate $1 million to support biological research and surveillance of the West Nile virus across 19 states throughout the East.

He said the president also requested an additional $35 million budget increase for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control to support its continued study of infectious diseases.

In a bid to ward off another West Nile virus outbreak, the City Council and the mayor came up with the necessary funds for a year-round mosquito control and viral surveillance program.

On Jan. 18, Dr. Neal Cohen, the city's health commissioner, presented the proposal to the City Council Health Committee but faced skepticism from council members about whether the money for the ambitious project could be found in time for spring.

On Friday, Sandra Mullin, a spokeswoman for Cohen, said $2.7 million had been allocated in the current budget and $4.3 million had been allocated in the fiscal year 2001 budget beginning July 1, 2000 to implement the program.

"It's almost a seamless budget for us because a lot of our activities are going to continue during the summer," Mullin said.

She said the 2000 budget funds would be used to set up surveillance systems, hire staff, hire companies for public education and get the initial program started.

Meanwhile, doctors at Flushing Hospital, whose staff played a major role in detecting signs of the initial outbreak among patients, hosted a West Nile virus conference Feb. 4 for the medical community.

Panelists included experts from Flushing Hospital, the city Health Department, the city's Office of Chief Medical Examiner, the Johns-Hopkins School of Public Health, the Bronx Zoo and the CDC.

"We wanted to get all the people involved with this thing from the beginning together under one roof to discuss what happened and what to do in the future," said Dr. Rick Conetta, director of critical care medicine at Flushing Hospital. "This is something we never saw before and we want to learn something about what we need to do this year."

Representatives from the city's Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also present to discuss bioterrorism.

There was some speculation that the West Nile outbreak was an act of bioterrorism, but federal security agencies have denied the claims.

Conetta said about 150 doctors from throughout the city, Long Island and Connecticut attended, but the media was not invited at the request of the panelists.

"They were public employees and were not permitted to speak to the press without special permission, so we were unable to open it up," Conetta said. "We wanted to keep it strictly a medical meeting for educational purposes."

Asked how Flushing Hospital in particular was preparing for the coming mosquito season, Conetta said physicians would be on the look out for any signs of the virus and immediately reporting them to the city Health Department.

He said one positive result of last summer's outbreak was it opened up the lines of communication between city, state and federal health agencies.

"We know all the people who worked on this by first names now, so we have a better working relationship and better access" for rapid diagnosis of a potential outbreak, Conetta said.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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