West Nile Virus: An Overview of Its Spread in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin in Contrast to Its Spread in the Americas

  • H. G. ZellerEmail author
  • I. Schuffenecker


West Nile (WN) virus is a mosquito-transmitted flavivirus. It is widely distributed in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and southern Europe and was recently introduced to North America. Birds are involved in the cycle of transmission as amplifying hosts. Humans and horses are considered accidental dead-end hosts. WN fever was initially considered a minor arbovirosis, usually inducing a nonsymptomatic or a mild flu-like illness in humans, but some cases of encephalitis associated with fatalities were reported in Israel in the 1950s. After two silent decades, several human and equine outbreaks of fatal encephalitis occurred from 1996 to 2000 in Romania, Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Russia, Israel, and France. In Romania, a few cases of WN encephalitis in humans are noticed every year, and in France, recent WN infections have been detected in monitored sentinel birds in 2001 and 2002. Phylogenetic studies have shown two main lineages of WN strains. Strains from lineage I are present in Africa, India, and Australia and are responsible for the outbreaks in Europe and in the Mediterranean basin, and strains from lineage II have been reported only in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1998, a virulent WN strain from lineage I was identified in dying migrating storks and domestic geese showing clinical symptoms of encephalitis and paralysis in Israel. A nearly identical WN strain suddenly emerged in New York in 1999, killing thousands of native birds and causing fatal cases in humans. The virus is now well established in the New World, and it disseminates rapidly. New modes of transmission through blood donations, organ transplants, and the intrauterine route have been reported. In Europe, an enhanced surveillance of WN infection in humans, horses, birds, and vectors may reveal the presence of the virus in different locations. Nevertheless, outbreaks of WN virus remain unpredictable. Further coordinated studies are needed for a better understanding of the ecology and the pathogenicity of the WN virus.


Encephalitis West Nile Virus West Nile Virus Infection White Stork Japanese Encephalitis Virus 
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© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut PasteurNational Reference Center for ArbovirusesLyon Cedex 07France

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