With the West Nile virus showing up in birds and horses around Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park officials have taken notice. The trapping of mosquitoes continues, wildlife biologists test dead birds and Park Service mules have received vaccinations.
“We’ve picked up a couple of dead birds here ... we brought those in to be tested and they were negative,” said Tanya Holigay, wildlife integrated test management coordinator for the park.
There has been some big news concerning the virus over the past several days. Closest to Grand Canyon was the dead crow found near Williams. Several horses on the Navajo reservation were found to be infected and have been euthanized.
“In the park, we’re putting out mosquito traps and those are checked all the time,” Holigay said. “We’ve been sending out information and trying to keep people updated on what’s going on in the park.”
Arizona is one of the last states in the continental 48 to see the virus within its borders. The virus was discovered in 1937 in Uganda, made its way to the United States’ East Coast in 1999 and was found in Arizona on Aug. 14.
Humans can be infected with the virus through mosquito bites.
“The West Nile virus is spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes,” Holigay said. “There’s no evidence it can be spread from person to person or animal to person.”
Scientists are working on a vaccine for humans. Such a vaccine already exists for horses and mules. Even if bitten by an infected mosquito, chances are a healthy person would survive. However, the elderly and infants are particularly vulnerable with a higher frequency of fatality rates. Symptoms include fever, nausea and body aches, similar to the common cold.
The park’s Science Center could use the help of residents to identify dead birds or squirrels. If found, Holigay encourages people to call her at 638-7617.
Although humans can’t catch the virus from a dead bird, there are still guidelines in place for handling them.
“The best thing to do if you find one is to immediately refrigerate the bird, but don’t freeze it,” Holigay said. “Use rubber gloves when picking up dead animals. If you have no gloves, put a plastic bag over your hand and pick it up, then tie the bag shut.”
Coconino County is asking people to avoid contact with dead birds. For those outside the park who find dead birds, contact the county toll free at 1-877-522-7800 to receive instructions on how to safely keep it for testing.
Different types of squirrels can also die of West Nile virus. If infected, squirrels will exhibit abnormal behavior, such as running around in circles, rolling over or having seizures.
All types of mammals can be infected with the virus, including dogs. But those instances are extremely rare. The most common infections continue to be found in birds, mainly ravens, crows and jays in this area.
The park has vaccinated its mules against West Nile virus. Xanterra Parks and Resorts will follow suit this spring.
Holigay said residents should not panic about possibly catching the virus. She compared it to the hantavirus scare that occurred throughout northern Arizona years ago.
The first appearance of the virus in Coconino County occurred a few weeks ago in Williams. As a result, the county expanded its mosquito trapping and established a “sentinel chicken flock” in the Williams area for monitoring purposes.
Chickens serve as hosts for West Nile virus, meaning that they carry the virus, but it does no harm to the chickens, and the virus cannot be passed on to humans by these chickens. Holigay said the park has not done any testing through chickens.
Holigay said the biggest problem associated with fighting the virus scare continues to be standing water. Residents are asked to eliminate standing water in their yards, including what has collected in tires, toys, tin cans or other items that can contain water. Mosquitoes can lay thousands of eggs in a very short time.