For the first time in six years, St. Louis encephalitis has shown up in Pinellas County.
The mosquito-transmitted disease that attacks the central nervous system disappeared in Pinellas when West Nile virus came to town in 2005.
But Tuesday, county officials announced they had confirmed St. Louis encephalitis in four sentinel chickens. The chickens are kept in eight locations in the county and tested weekly to detect the presence of mosquitoes carrying diseases.
Two chickens in Walsingham Park in Largo and two chickens at the North Highway Maintenance Yard in Clearwater tested positive.
In rare cases, the disease can be fatal, county officials said. But the message to residents Tuesday was clear: don't panic.
"It's not something they need to be fearful of, just take extra precautions if they're going to be outdoors to protect themselves from mosquito bites," said Nancy Iannotti, director of Pinellas Mosquito Control.
There have been no cases reported in humans. The last reported death from the disease was in the Florida Panhandle in 2002.
And most people who get infected have mild symptoms, or none at all. Symptoms are similar to the flu, said Pinellas County Health Department spokeswoman Maggie Hall.
Hall suggested residents can protect themselves by wearing mosquito repellent containing DEET (or using mosquito netting for infants who can't wear DEET repellents). And residents should be vigilant about draining standing water and discarding items like old tires that can be breeding grounds.
The Pinellas mosquito population has increased following recent rains. Mosquito Control technicians have been spraying and fogging known breeding areas and have stepped up in areas where the virus was detected, Iannotti said.
The department emerged relatively unscathed during the ongoing budget crisis, losing only $30,000 in funding over the past three years, which means it has the staff and materials needed, she said.