With the recent discovery of two dead crows infected with West Nile Virus in Santa Barbara County, local officials are beginning to worry that this year could bring higher activity of the disease, as well as the first human cases of the virus in the area.

Workers from the Santa Barbara Coastal Vector Control District — an agency that works to control disease-spreading animals — collected the first dead crow from the Carpinteria area June 2, after receiving a report from an unidentified caller. The second bird was found June 7, near El Colegio Road in Isla Vista. Mitch Bernstein, Vector Control general manager, said the two infected American crows are Santa Barbara County’s first reported cases of the virus this year. He said the county expects to see higher levels of West Nile activity in 2005 than in previous years because reports of the disease this year surfaced six weeks earlier than the first reported case last year.

Paige Batson, disease control and prevention program manager for the Santa Barbara County Health Dept., said the California Dept. of Health Services has already verified the presence of the virus in 27 of the state’s 58 counties and that the County Health Dept. is concerned that increasing levels of the West Nile in the area could mean the county will soon see its first human case of the disease.

“We know it is in our county,” Batson said. “We have to anticipate that eventually we will see a human case because it is in our birds, which is a good indicator that it is here.”

The first cases of West Nile Virus in the United States were reported in 1999. Mosquitoes transmit the virus, which displays mild flu-like symptoms, as well as fever and stiff neck, and can potentially lead to serious illness or death. The first cases of the virus in Santa Barbara County occurred in 2004, when seven dead birds tested positive for the disease.

UCSB Environmental Health and Safety specialist Bruce Hanley said that, by now, the disease has had a year to become established in the area. He said the record amounts of rainfall in the past year and the warm weather create a perfect breeding environment for mosquitoes.

“The conditions are optimal,” Hanley said. “The weather is warmer, which means the mosquitoes produce more quickly and the larvae develop into adults more quickly. The next couple of months are probably the peak months of the year, while the weather is still wet and warm.”

Batson said the health department has already begun to notify doctors and nurses in the area that they should be aware of the possibility of West Nile when treating their patients.

“We keep trying to get the word out to the medical community to test for West Nile Virus,” Batson said.

Hanley said UCSB has also taken measures to protect itself from West Nile. He said the campus Environmental Health and Safety office contracts the Santa Barbara Coastal Vector Control District to regularly monitor and treat on-campus wetlands where mosquitoes breed. Wetlands such as the Devereux slough, the Carpinteria slough and the Lagoon are treated with briquettes that are saturated with pesticides and placed in the water.

“[Vector Control uses] the most benign pesticides they can,” Hanley said. “They use pesticides that have the least toxicity and are still functional to do the job. We make sure they don’t use any more than what is absolutely needed.”

Batson said local citizens should continue to use the same preventive measures as they have in the past to protect themselves from West Nile Virus. She said people should do their best to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes by wearing bug repellent while outdoors, keeping screens on their windows and avoiding areas with stagnant water.

“It is no different than last year,” Batson said. “We need to take the same preventative measures.”

To report dead birds, call 1-877-WNV-BIRD. For information regarding human cases of West Nile Virus, call the Santa Barbara Public Health Dept.’s Disease Control office at 1-805-681-5280.