PORTLAND (AP) – Even though the worst mosquito-breeding weather is behind us, Mainers should not let down their guard against the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, the state’s top health official said Wednesday.

Mosquitoes thrive in wet weather in the spring but the virus carried by mosquitoes tends to appear in Maine in late summer and fall, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Bureau of Health.

“The season is just now beginning,” Mills said.

Birds infected with the disease are the first sign that the West Nile virus has hit an area. Last year, 100 birds from 13 of the state’s 16 counties tested positive for the virus, Mills said.

So far, Maine is the only state east of the Mississippi that hasn’t had a confirmed human case of West Nile.

But health officials believe it’s inevitable that someone will contract the illness in Maine. All other New England states have had confirmed human cases, and states and Canadian provinces with similar weather have had human cases.

“We think it’s just a matter time,” she said.

The disease first appeared in the United States in 1999 and has killed more than 560 people over the past five years. This summer, the virus has sickened more than 100 people in 10 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week. Two people from Arizona and one from Iowa have died.

In Maine, the state is focusing less this summer on testing birds than on expanding testing of people with symptoms of West Nile. So far, a dozen people have been tested for the disease – all were negative – and several more are in the process of being tested for the presence of the virus.

“For the last three years, we tested only people with severe neurological symptoms. This year we’re casting a wider net and are testing people with less severe symptoms,” she said.

West Nile virus rarely kills. About 1 in 150 people who get it will develop potentially deadly encephalitis or meningitis. Last year there were 9,862 West Nile cases and 264 deaths, the CDC said.

So far, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are among a handful of states that have had neither humans nor birds testing positive for the virus so far this summer, according to the CDC.

Dr. Kathleen Gensheimer, state epidemiologist, said it’s unclear how the virus is introduced into Maine each summmer. But the virus is eventually traded back and forth between birds and mosquitoes.

The reason the season begins late in Maine is likely because the culex species of mosquito that carries the virus breeds and becomes active in late July, Gensheimer said. The mosquitoes remain active throughout August, which is usually the driest summer month.

“This is the time to take the precautions, especially in the coming weeks,” Mills said.

Mosquitoes are plentiful after a wet spring and July wasn’t much better with rain on 11 of the first 20 days in Portland. “The populations are actually pretty thick,” said Ted St. Amand, owner of Atlantic Exterminating and Atlantic Mosquito Control in Portland.

It’s up to Mainers to protect themselves since the state does not spray for mosquitoes.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services encourages people to cover up with clothing or use an insect repellent containing DEET, which has the added benefit of repelling ticks that carry Lyme disease.

People also are encouraged to fix screens that keep mosquitoes out of houses, avoid going outside at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are active, and eliminate standing water where mosquitoes breed.

Editors: To report dead birds for testing for the West Nile virus, contact the Maine Bureau of Health at (888) 697-5846.

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AP-ES-07-21-04 1623EDT

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