NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The death toll from the worst outbreak of West Nile virus in U.S. history climbed to seven Friday as Louisiana health officials said two more people had died of the mosquito-borne disease. The governor of Mississippi declared a state of emergency as the number of cases there increased.
The victims were identified as a 76-year-old woman who died Aug. 2 and a 94-year-old woman who died Sunday. Both lived in parishes north of New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain, that have reported more than 30 cases of the disease.
"It looks like a lot of the people who died were elderly people and people with other health problems," said Dr. Raoult Ratard, the state epidemiologist.
The number of cases in Louisiana has risen to 85 and the state is still waiting for test results on 90 blood samples, Ratard said. To avoid delaying results for the most seriously ill, Louisiana will test only people who appear to have nervous system infections - meningitis or encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.
The Louisiana outbreak is the deadliest since the virus killed seven people and hospitalized 55 others in New York in 1999, when the disease was first detected in this country.
With weeks of hot, humid weather still ahead, Louisiana has already equaled the death toll from that outbreak as well as the 59 confirmed cases of human encephalitis, or brain swelling.
One of the latest Louisiana victims was Nona Smegal, 76, who suffered from emphysema and had a heart attack 18 months ago. Her son, Thomas Smegal, told The Times-Picayune newspaper that he used to think daily news reports overplayed the outbreak.
"They make a list, you know: 'Wear long sleeves. Don't go out at night. Empty standing water.' And I'm like, 'God, will you spend some time on something else?' " he said.
"But now, all of a sudden, I'm thinking they'd better keep saying this," he said. "And people had better be paying attention."
All West Nile deaths this year have been in Louisiana, though Mississippi officials were awaiting test results to confirm whether a death there was due to the virus.
Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove declared a state of emergency to warn residents to protect themselves and clear the way to seek federal funding to fight the outbreak. Louisiana has already taken the step.
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said she planned to ask the Air Force next week to send in a special operations squadron to spray insecticide in affected parishes. The operations group of the 910th Flight Wing, based in Ohio, specializes in insect control.
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