The West Nile Virus Encephalitis Outbreak in the United States (1999-2000)

From Flushing, New York, to Beyond Its Borders


Address for correspondence: Deborah S. Asnis, M.D., Flushing Hospital Medical Center, 4500 Parsons Boulevard, Flushing, New York 11355. 718-670-3012; fax 718-670-4510;


Abstract: Viruses cause most forms of encephalitis. The two main types responsible for epidemic encephalitis are enteroviruses and arboviruses. The City of New York reports about 10 cases of encephalitis yearly. Establishing a diagnosis is often difficult. In August 1999, a cluster of five patients with fever, confusion, and weakness were admitted to a community hospital in Flushing, New York. Flaccid paralysis developed in four of the five patients, and they required ventilatory support. Three, less severe, cases presented later in the same month. An investigation was conducted by the New York City (NYC) and New York State (NYS) health departments and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The West Nile virus (WNV) was identified as the etiologic agent. WNV is an arthropod-borne flavivirus, with a geographic distribution in Africa, the Middle East, and southwestern Asia. It has also been isolated in Australia and sporadically in Europe but never in the Americas. The majority of people infected have no symptoms. Fever, severe myalgias, headache, conjunctivitis, lymphadenopathy, and a roseolar rash can occur. Rarely, encephalitis or meningitis is seen. The NYC outbreak resulted in the first cases of WNV infection in the Western Hemisphere and the first arboviral infection in NYC since yellow fever in the nineteenth century. The WNV is now a public health concern in the United States.