West Nile virus: Lessons from the 21st century

Pamela A. Wilkins, Fabio Del Piero

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Introduction: West Nile virus (WNV) first appeared in the United States in 1999, causing illness and death in birds, horses, and humans. While the initial outbreak of this sometimes deadly viral disease was limited to the northeastern United States, the virus had an inexorable migration across the continental United States over the next 3 years, causing huge losses among the affected species. The purpose of this review is to present currently available information regarding the epidemiology, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of WNV infection. Veterinarians, particularly those in an emergency practice, serve as an important source of reliable information regarding this disease for animal owners and the public in general. Data sources: Data sources used for the preparation of this review include computer-based searches of PubMed and Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux (CAB) abstracts. A search in PubMed using 'West Nile' retrieved 1468 'hits' or references, while a similar search in CAB abstracts produced 815 references. Additional information was obtained from various meeting proceedings, particularly data presented in abstract form, and from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website dedicated to WNV. Human data synthesis: Prior to the mid-1990s, reported large-scale epidemics of WNV infection in humans predominantly presented as acute, mild, febrile disease, sometimes associated with lymphadenopathy and skin rash. The recent large epidemic in the United States, in contrast, has prominently featured encephalitis, particularly among the elderly. Additionally, polioencephalomyelitis-like complications resulting in long-term neurologic sequelae have been reported. There are many WNV-permissive native avian and mosquito hosts in the Unites States and there appear to be few limitations to the spread of the disease in the United States. It is expected that the virus will be identified in all 48 continental states, Mexico, and Canada by the end of 2003. Veterinary data synthesis: The horse is the animal species most affected by the recent WNV epidemic in the United States, and losses to the equine industry have been large and unprecedented. A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved vaccine against WNV has been in use in horses since 2001 and appears to be effective in limiting the incidence of disease in well-vaccina ted populations. WNV infection has been documented in other species of mammals, including camelids (alpaca/llamas) and dogs, and veterinarians should include WNV as a differential diagnosis for animals presenting with clinical signs consistent with central nervous system infection. A large concern exists for endangered bird populations, particularly birds of prey, whether in zoos or in the wild.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2-14
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Encephalitis
  • Epidemic
  • Equine
  • Horse
  • Veterinary

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Veterinary


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