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Study looks at West Nile virus

24th March 2009

Researchers in South Africa were recently given the opportunity to examine the progress of West Nile virus through the body.

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When a 29-year-old lab worker jabbed herself with an infected needle by accident, her fellow scientists took it as an opportunity for research.

They did this by monitoring the signals the body sends using chemicals known as cytokines, which seem to interfere with the adverse effects of the disease.

Marietjie Venter, head of the respiratory and emerging neurological virus programme at the University of Pretoria in South Africa said that there are currently no specific treatments for neurological West Nile virus infections, though cytokines may serve as potential targets for treatment.

She said that the case study also highlights that the current strains of the virus endemic to Southern Africa may cause severe disease, contradicting the general belief that West Nile Virus lineage 2 only causes mild symptoms.

Pascal James Imperato of the State University of New York said that the significance of the finding is in the knowledge it provides about West Nile at a fundamental level.

He said that, since researchers were able to link the course of the infection to basic science, other researchers will be interested in the range of cytokines which produced and the levels at which they were produced as time went on.

West Nile became indemic in America after it was first discovered in 1999, and consists of a range of symptoms, including swelling of the brain, which can threaten the lives of sufferers, as well as giving them severe headaches, joint pain, and sensitivity to light.

The virus is typically transmitted from birds to mosquitoes, and then from mosquitoes to humans.

Though the woman pricked with the infected needle was in danger of suffering the adverse conditions of the disease, researchers were also granted an opportunity to study aspects of the virus they had never seen before in any lab.

One week after the woman had pricked herself, she had backache and neck stiffness, symptoms commonly associated with the beginning stages of West Nile virus infection.

When her condition became more serious, the woman developed a mild fever, and then encephalitis.

Three weeks later, the symptoms had gone away.

When she recovered her health, 26 days had passed.

It had previously been supposed that the Yellow Fever vaccine works against West Nile, but this was disproved by the woman's experience, since she had received one before West Nile took effect.

On the day the woman was infected, the level of cytokines increased, remaining elevated even into the day she fully recovered.

The study authors believe that interferon-a might be the cure for the brain and brain membrane swelling that accompanies West Nile infection, due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Venter said that two West Nile sufferers reacted well to interferon-a.

She said that the study confirms that there is a cytokine increase in patients when symptoms become apparent, and supports the use of interferon alpha 2 beta as a treatment.

She also said that other cytokines that have been highlighted in the course of the neurological case warrant further research for their role in controlling West Nile Virus.

She said that these include include interferon inducible protein 10 (IP10) and interleukin 13.

 

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