This year, the U.S. is experiencing one of the worst West Nile virus outbreaks since 1999, when the mosquito-borne disease was first discovered, with over 3,142 reported cases and 134 deaths. The national total for infections was three times more than what is typically reported by August, according to the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases. Forty-eight states have reported West Nile cases in humans, animals or mosquitoes; however Texas has been the hardest hit, with forty percent of cases reported in humans. Even Escambia County has been affected, with ten cases and one death reported as of September 19th.
What is West Nile exactly?
West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes that bite infected birds, and then go on to bite people or other kinds of animals, especially horses. The disease cannot be spread from infected animals to people or from person to person through casual touch; however it can be spread through organ transplants or blood transfusions. For this reason, blood donated in the U.S. is screened for the virus.
How will you know if you’re infected?
About 80% of people infected with the West Nile virus either do not experience any symptoms or have such mild symptoms that they do not even realize they have it. If symptoms do appear, they begin 3 to 14 days after a person has been bitten by the infected mosquito, last for 3 to 6 days, and include:
- Headaches, body aches or eye pain
- A rash, usually on the chest, back and arms
- Reduced hunger
- Vomiting or nausea
- Swollen lymph nodes
People typically make full recoveries, but permanent problems can persist in children and the elderly. In rare cases, West Nile causes encephalitis, myelitis or meningitis. Of those who have serious problems, people older than 70 have the biggest fatality risk from the virus.
Severe cases involving problems with the spinal cord and brain are rare, but can cause:
- High fever
- Paralysis or neck stiffening
- Attention reduction
- Tremors, convulsions or muscle weakness
Preventing West Nile
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for the West Nile virus; however several groups are working towards a vaccination. Those infected can recover at home if they have a mild case, but hospitalization is required for severe cases.
The best form of defense from the West Nile Virus is to reduce exposure to mosquitoes. This can be done by:
- Applying insect repellant to exposed skin and clothing.
- Wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants outdoors when weather permits.
- Using mosquito netting over infant carriers when outdoors to protect infants.
- Staying indoors during peak mosquito biting times (dawn, dusk and early evening).
- Preventing mosquitoes from coming indoors by installing and/or repairing window screens.
- Draining standing water sources in areas where you work or play outdoors in order to reduce the number of mosquitoes.