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HELENA — State officials are gearing up for a mosquito and tick season that promises to spread new and exotic diseases to Montanans.

West Nile virus hit Montana last summer and state epidemiologist Todd Damrow said the disease is here to stay. The state is prepared to catch and test mosquitoes, test dead birds, sick horses, even people, as the state enters its first full summer with the sometimes deadly disease.

"Our neighbors in North Dakota reported their first positive horse so far," he said. "Additional (human) cases in Montana certainly wouldn't be unexpected."

The goal, Damrow said, is to identify the disease's spread through the state and find and treat people sickened by it.

Last summer, only a handful of people got the disease and all recovered.

The African disease is spread by mosquitoes and for most people infected, it resembles nothing more serious than the flu. Some people may even get the disease and experience no symptoms, Damrow said. But for a few people, primarily the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, West Nile virus can be fatal.

Damrow encouraged people to avoid stagnant pools of water where mosquitoes are likely to swarm and to be generous with insect repellent.

He also said that only a small percentage of mosquitoes in Montana carry the disease.

Tick season is also under way and epidemiologists are studying a new tick-borne disease found for the first time in the world in Montana last year.

Kammy Johnson, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is working with Damrow in Montana to help identify the new disease.

Montana public health officials also are collaborating with the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, which has special expertise on tick-borne diseases.

The disease first showed up in the Yellowstone River valley near Billings. So far, Johnson said, several other people have caught the disease this year and they have all been in the Billings area.

The disease is thought to be related to Lyme disease, Johnson said, another tick-borne disease. Both ailments begin with a "bulls-eye" rash around the site of the tick bite. Lyme disease can cause symptoms resembling arthritis and neurological disorders, but it is treatable with antibiotics.

The Montana relation does not seem to be as severe as Lyme disease, Johnson said, and all the people who are thought to have contracted it have had a complete recovery.

Right now, officials don't know where — or what — the disease is. They are asking people who have been bitten by a tick to kill, but preserve the arthropod and take it to a public health clinic so the ticks can be studied in the ongoing program.

So far, she said, they have received dozens of ticks.

Johnson said people who have been bitten by a tick and later develop a red, bull's eye rash should seek treatment and report the incident.

Tick season in Montana is heaviest in May and June, she said.

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