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Queens Chronicle

35th Anniversary Edition: News Makers (1999) Asnis: Expert doctor discovers West Nile

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Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 2:47 pm, Thu Nov 14, 2013.

Medical sleuthing led Flushing Hospital’s Dr. Deborah Asnis to a major discovery in 2000: the first outbreak of West Nile virus in the Western Hemisphere.

A native of Whitestone, Asnis is chief of infectious diseases at the Flushing institution. At the end of August 1999, she noticed five patients with unusual and serious symptoms and alerted officials at the city Department of Health. Although the symptoms were not identical, there were similarities. The only common factor was the patients all spent time in their backyards.

Officials first believed it was St. Louis encephalitis, but later confirmed the illness was caused by a rare strain known as the West Nile virus.

“Sometimes doctors have to assume the role of detective and the results here were gratifying,” Asnis said. “In this case, we did recognize something. It was tiring because we worked long hours, but exciting.”

In 2008, she was inducted into the New York City Hall of Fame for health and science. In making the presentation, the city said it was her quick actions that helped save the lives of many New Yorkers, who would have not otherwise taken proper precautions.

A graduate of the Northwestern University School of Medicine, Asnis lives in Roslyn, LI with her husband and two children.

Since West Nile was discovered, it has spread across the country by infected mosquitoes. In 1999, there were 47 cases in the city with four deaths, most of them in Queens. This year, the city reported eight cases with no fatalities. One case was in Queens.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent statistics show a total of 88 deaths and 2,170 cases throughout the country.

About one in five people who are infected with the virus will develop flu-like symptoms, with less than 1 percent developing a serious neurological illness such as encephalitis or meningitis.

Since the virus originated in Queens 14 years ago, the city has taken an aggressive approach to deal with the sometimes deadly virus. It sprays neighborhoods where there has been an increased activity of infested mosquitoes and spreads larvacide in more than 140,000 catch basins. The agency also instructs the public on preventative measures.

Since the first outbreak, which was pinpointed at undeveloped Powells Cove parkland in College Point, the city has restored the salt marshes there, which prevents the water from stagnating and eliminates a major mosquito breeding ground.

As the virus spread across the country, states learned from the city DOH how to attack what the agency calls “a major public health problem” by adopting similar practices. And it all started with Asnis.

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