The West Nile Virus: Are You In Danger?

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Mosquito bites can cause more than just itching. Photo by CDC/Jim Gathany

Mosquitoes are a true sign that summer is upon us: they sneak up on you, and leave their mark.

Most of the time, their bites are nothing more than an annoying itch, but mosquitoes can carry a disease called the West Nile virus.

The West Nile virus (WNV) was first detected in the United States in 1999, according to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and since then, 30,000 cases have been reported here in the US.

2012 has been the worst year for WNV since 1999, according to the CDC – as of August 28, there have been 66 deaths due to the West Nile virus, among the  1,590 cases of the disease.

West Nile virus. Photo by the National Institutes of Health

West Nile Virus Symptoms

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80 percent of people infected with the WNV will not show any symptoms. Up to 20 percent of people will have mild symptoms such as fever, headache, body ache, vomiting, nausea, swollen lymph glands, or a rash that develops on the chest, back, and stomach. These mild symptoms can last a few days or a few weeks.

West Nile virus can also be serious, with one in 150 people developing a high fever, stiffness in their neck, stupor, disorientation, coma, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, and paralysis. These symptoms can last several weeks and neurological symptoms can even be permanent. People who are infected by the WNV will begin to show symptoms within three to 14 days of the mosquito’s bite. Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment for West Nile virus infections, but hospital care may be suitable for severe symptoms such as fever.

West Nile Virus Outbreak: Peak

As we approach September, and the death and illness tolls continue to rise during this year’s West Nile season, we asked Kristen Nordlund at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention about the normal peak of infections. Nordlund explained that, “The peak of West Nile epidemics usually occur in mid-August, however, it takes a couple of weeks before people get sick, go to a doctor, get diagnosed, and then reported. Thus, cases now being reported reflect infections from a couple of weeks ago.”

Infectious Mosquitos: Preventing the Bite

There are many things you can do to help prevent a mosquito bite, and to decrease the mosquito population – so what’s the best prevention strategy? According to Nordlund, it’s best to take a multi-pronged approach. She told Decoded Science, “First, if I had to pick one prevention strategy, I would say it’s whatever people can stick with.  With the increase in West Nile activity, I understand that people are worried and want to know what they can do to protect themselves. The best thing people can do to prevent getting West Nile Virus is to avoid mosquitoes.  When you are outside, use insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient. Be sure to use insect repellent and wear long sleeves and pants during dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active. Make sure the screens on your doors and windows are in good condition so that you don’t let mosquitoes in. Get rid of mosquito breeding sites by emptying standing water from flower pots, buckets, barrels, children’s wading pools, etc.”

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