VALDOSTA -- Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control began Wednesday collecting blood samples from live birds in Lowndes County with the hope of learning more about the extent of the West Nile virus.

"The main concern is to monitor the virus activity and to know when risk is high," said Dr. Nicholas Komar, vertebrate ecologist for the CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases, in Fort Collins, Colo. "It's not enough to know the virus is here; we need to know how much transmission there has been."

Komar said the level of risk for humans and other animals will be determined through extensive testing of mosquitoes and sampling of birds' blood.

About 14 mosquito traps were set Tuesday evening in the Mud Creek area near where an infected bird was found earlier this month. Blood sampling of live birds began Wednesday afternoon on the perimeter of Wild Adventures theme park.

Komar said Wild Adventures was chosen because it increased the possibility of catching the targeted number of birds.

"During our scouting throughout the county we heard that that we would be successful catching birds here," Komar said. "We want to catch at least 100 birds for a good sampling before we leave Friday morning."

Although all birds are equally susceptible to the virus, crows and blue jays are more likely to die from the virus, he said.

Park Curator Mike Courson said Wild Adventures is supporting the efforts of the CDC.

"We're just letting them use Wild Adventures as a base camp in Valdosta and Lowndes County out of the goodness of our heart to help out with the effort to isolate this virus," Courson said. "Our property here has wild birds just like anywhere else in the county."

The condensed layout of the park makes it easier to catch the birds, Courson said. About 10 Wild Adventures birds also will have blood drawn for testing, he said. The park is lending the use of its animal care facilities to the CDC for drawing blood from the birds.

Komar said the trapped mosquitoes will be tested to determine the infection rate among the mosquito population, and the birds' blood samples will be used to determine the infection rates among the live bird population in the area. He said those two factors will help them determine how long the virus has been in Lowndes County. Mosquito sampling will continue for several days until a large enough sampling has been attained.

"All the specimens will go back to our laboratories in Colorado," Komar said. "I expect that the test for the mosquitoes could be available in about a week ... it could take several weeks for the results of the tests on the birds."

Komar said additional testing is needed on the birds to differentiate between West Nile and St. Louis Equine Encephalitis, a similar virus.

"Little is known about the ecology of West Nile in the Southeast," Komar said. "There are different mosquito vectors involved and different bird species involved ... we want to get basic information on the life cycle of West Nile here."

He said that after this information is obtained, officials can better direct their surveillance efforts and help direct future decisions affecting public health.

In the meantime, however, the siting of dead birds is the most sensitive method of tracking the virus, and he encouraged anyone who sees a dead bird to call the local health department.

Dr. Lynne Feldman, district health director for the Division of Public Health, also reported Wednesday that city, county and health officials met earlier that morning to discuss their plan of action. She reported that nine birds have been sent from Lowndes to the state laboratory in Athens and that there have been 53 reports of dead or strange acting birds. Of those birds, only one has been determined to have been infected with the West Nile virus.

"We are keeping track of the dead birds, and there is no apparent pattern," Feldman said.

She added that Lowndes is not the only county in the area that has sent birds to the Athens lab, and that counties are allowed to send only 10 birds. Be

cause Lowndes is about to exceed that, she hopes Lowndes will get priority for testing because the only infected bird came from here.

City Manager Larry Hanson said the city has made an agreement with the county concerning spraying for mosquitoes.

"We have agreed to spray in the areas just outside the city for the same charge as it costs us," Hanson said. "We have also notified our marshals to step up efforts during their patrols to watch for standing water sources."

He said the city has been spraying from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. since April 18, but now spraying efforts have been doubled to cover the entire city each week rather than once every two weeks. He also said additional efforts will be made to monitor junk yards and other areas where mosquito hazards may exist.

To report a dead bird or a strangely behaving bird, call 333-5290.

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