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Public engagement key in fighting West Nile Virus in South Carolina, residents encouraged to submit dead birds for testing

Columbia, South Carolina – People living in South Carolina can play a big part in tracking the spread of the West Nile virus during the spring and summer by sending in certain types of dead birds to be tested in a lab.

The program that checks these birds helps the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) figure out where and when the virus is popping up more. If they find a lot of birds have caught the virus in an area, it means the virus might be spreading there. DHEC then tells the local leaders so they can do something to lower the chance of people and animals getting sick.

“The public’s involvement with our dead bird surveillance program bolsters the agency’s surveillance efforts and can help identify West Nile virus before it begins affecting people,” said Dr. Chris Evans, State Public Health Entomologist. “This is a unique opportunity for the public to proactively assist their public health agency in staying ahead of a potential health risk.”

Mosquitoes get the West Nile virus by biting birds that already have it. After about one or two weeks, these mosquitoes can then pass the virus on to people and other animals.

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“Most people infected with West Nile virus have no symptoms, and although the risk of serious illness is low, it is possible for potentially fatal inflammation of the brain to occur in infected people, a condition known as encephalitis,” said Dr. Linda Bell, DHEC State Epidemiologist. “The primary way to get West Nile virus is from the bite of an infected mosquito, which is why mosquito bite prevention and control are so important in reducing human exposures.”

People living in South Carolina can play a big part in tracking the spread of the West Nile virus during the spring and summer
Culex mosquito/ CDC

West Nile virus cases vary from one year to another

The number of cases of the West Nile virus can change a lot from one year to the next. In 2023, for example, DHEC tested 43 birds from 18 counties, and five of these birds had the virus. To really understand how this disease spreads through mosquitoes, they need to test a lot of dead birds. DHEC has a map online that shows where the virus has been found in animals like birds in different counties, both now and in the past.Top of Form

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DHEC doesn’t directly control mosquitoes but does share up-to-date info to help people, local communities, and mosquito control teams take steps to cut down on mosquito numbers and avoid mosquito bites. The actual work of controlling mosquitoes happens at the community level.

DHEC encourages people to send in certain birds that have recently died

DHEC encourages people to send in certain birds that have recently died, like crows, blue jays, house finches, house sparrows, and other similar birds, as long as they don’t seem to have been hurt and aren’t rotting. These birds are more likely to catch the West Nile virus, so testing them can be really helpful. They might test other kinds of birds too, but they decide this on an individual basis.

If you find a dead bird, you can report or send it to DHEC at your local public health department from March 15 to November 30. Here’s how to do it safely:

  • Use gloves or pick up the bird with doubled, plastic bags. Do not touch a bird, dead or alive, with bare hands.
  • Keep the bagged bird cool until it can be placed on ice or in a refrigerator. If you can’t deliver the bird carcass to DHEC within 36 hours of collection, freeze it until you are able to deliver it or have it shipped.
  • Download and complete a Dead Bird Submission and Reporting Sheet for West Nile Virus and take the sheet and dead bird to a local DHEC Health or Environmental Affairs office during normal business hours (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday). See DHEC’s list of available offices for drop-off; WIC-only public health departments can’t accept birds.

For more information, including locating a local DHEC office for submitting deceased birds, visit scdhec.gov/birdtesting or contact the Vector-Borne Diseases Laboratory at 803-896-3802 or vector@dhec.sc.gov.

Read also: South Carolina legislators seek state-approved vape registry to combat teen vaping epidemic

Additional information about WNV and mosquito management tips, as well as a brief informational video from Dr. Linda Bell, are available on the West Nile Virus page of the DHEC website.

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