It won't be long before the mosquitoes start biting again; it's a given in Vermont. And just like the pests themselves, experts say the West Nile virus that some of them carry is here to stay. West Nile first came to the United States in 1999 and is now the country's leading vector-borne cause of viral encephalitis. Doctors say more than 3 million have been infected so far.
"It can cause most commonly an encephalitis-type picture in people that do have neurological symptoms," said Dr. Kristen Pierce of UVM-Fletcher Allen infectious disease.
And it can be fatal. To date, there is no treatment for West Nile virus and there's no preventive medication either. But researchers at the University of Vermont's Vaccine Testing Center are working to change that. They're about to begin a new trial on the first ever West Nile virus vaccine developed by the National Institutes of Health.
"The vaccine has been tested in adults 18 to 50, and we know that it's safe and it's well tolerated, and it produces a good immune response in that group of healthy adults. What we need to know now is does this vaccine produce similar, or just as good an immune response in people who are over the age of 50 because as I said, those are the people that are at most risk of severe infection," Pierce said.
UVM is joining the NIH, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in this next phase of the trial. They're looking for healthy adults 50-65.
"It's a live, attenuated vaccine; so that means it's live virus that's been weakened by various mechanisms. Other live attenuated vaccines are things like the measles vaccine, the mumps vaccine, yellow fever vaccine, certain types of influenza," Pierce explained.
The vaccine will be given by injection with a booster to follow in six months.
With mosquito eradication and personal responsibility the only known strategies to control West Nile right now, doctors are hopeful the vaccine they're testing will eventually be approved.
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