West Nile virus (WNV) is transmitted by mosquitoes and causes fever and encephalitis in humans, equines, and occasionally wild birds. The virus was first isolated in sub-Saharan Africa where it is endemic. WNV lineage 1 has been responsible for repeated disease outbreaks in the countries of the Mediterranean basin over the past 50 years. This lineage was also introduced into North America in 1999 causing widespread human, equine, and avian mortality. WNV lineage 2, the first WNV lineage to be isolated, was believed to be restricted to sub-Saharan Africa causing a relatively mild fever in humans. However, in 2004, an investigation in Hungary of a case of encephalitis in a wild goshawk (Accipiter gentiles) resulted in the isolation of WNV lineage 2. During the summer of 2004, and in subsequent years, the virus appeared to spread locally throughout Hungary and into neighboring Austria. Subsequently, WNV lineage 2 emerged in Greece in 2010 and in Italy in 2011, involving outbreaks on the Italian mainland and Sardinia. Further spread through the Balkan countries is also suspected. Whole genome sequencing has confirmed that the virus responsible for the outbreaks in Greece and Italy was almost identical to that isolated in Hungary. However, unlike the outbreaks in Hungary, the burden of disease in Mediterranean countries has fallen upon the human population with numerous cases of West Nile fever and a relatively higher mortality rate than in previous outbreaks. The emergence of WNV lineage 2 in Europe, its over-wintering and subsequent spread over large distances illustrates the repeated threat of emerging mosquito-borne diseases. This article will review the emergence of WNV lineage 2 in Europe; consider the pathways for virus spread and the public health implications for the continent.
Keywords: Europe; West Nile virus; emergence; encephalitis; lineage.