Doctor testifies West Nile cases going unreported in Miss.

Published 4:45 pm Thursday, August 31, 2006

About 29 cases of the West Nile virus, most of them in the Hattiesburg area, have gone unreported in Mississippi this year because the state Health Department has not followed the necessary procedures to detect the disease, lawmakers were told Wednesday.

Dr. Art Leis, who works at the Methodist Rehabilitation Center and has published papers on West Nile, said a source within the Health Department has shown him documentation revealing that the agency does not perform or order all the testing required under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Liz Sharlot, a Health Department spokeswoman, denied Leis’ allegations.

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“That goes against what we’re here to do. We’re here to promote and protect the health of Mississippians,” Sharlot said. “There would not be any reason to do that.”

Leis said the 29 cases have been grouped as undetermined flaviviruses, which are of a class that includes St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile.

He said once a flavivirus is detected, another test must be conducted to distinguish between encephalitis and West Nile, but the Health Department is not requesting follow-up tests.

“These cases are literally being ignored. Data is being lost,” Leis told the Senate Public Health Committee, which is holding hearings on the Department of Health, an agency that has come under criticism for its management.

Lawmakers were surprised and disturbed by Leis’ testimony, with many of them quizzing him on whether other cases in the state may be going unreported.

“These are accusations of nonreporting of West Nile, which would be very negligent and almost criminal,” said Sen. Tom King, R-Petal, whose district covers the Hattiesburg area. “A lot of people need to know. They deserve to know.”

State Health Officer Dr. Brian Amy was in the committee meeting room during Leis’ testimony. Amy was scheduled to testify on Thursday, the last day of the hearing.

Leis said he eventually contacted state epidemiologist Dr. Mills McNeill about the undetermined flavivirus category, but the issue still hasn’t been addressed. Showing lawmakers a document that said Mississippi had 31 West Nile cases as of Aug. 19, Leis said “that number should be literally double.”

Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the hearing is not meant to be a witch hunt and that the panel was not “trying to indict anyone.” However, witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify and are sworn-in before they make any statements.

King said it is rare for hearings to be conducted in this manner for a sunset review of a state agency.

“It raises a red flag that there are problems in the Department of Health,” King said.

The Health Department has undergone four reorganizations since Amy took over, a point of criticism by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER.

PEER Executive Director Max Arinder told lawmakers on Tuesday the PEER report found that the department was unable to effectively manage the changes. Arinder said that in many cases when the reorganizations took place, employees affected were not informed.

He also said that since 2002, the agency has reduced its accountability controls for its programs and “there’s been an enormous loss” of medical experience at the department.