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Should I be concerned about West Nile virus?

August 27, 2012

This year’s outbreak of the West Nile virus could be the worst our nation has ever seen. With 1,118 cases of the disease in 38 states reported so far this year, the incidence is nearly three times that of previous years. Seventy-five percent of the reported cases have been concentrated in five states: Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Texas. According to the newest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41 people in the United States have already died from the illness in 2012.

What is West Nile virus?

Although identified in Uganda in 1937, the first reported case of West Nile virus in the Western hemisphere occurred in the New York City area in 1999. Since that time, it has spread to nearly every state.

Humans contract the disease through the bite of a mosquito. When a mosquito bites an infected bird or animal, it can then transmit the virus to humans during subsequent feedings. Outbreaks tend to occur in the warmest months, with the peak season occurring June through September.

Most people who contract the virus will have no symptoms. One in five people who have the virus will experience symptoms, and they are generally mild: headache, body aches, skin rash or swollen lymph glands. The symptoms may last only a few days or may persist for a few weeks.

Although the illness is mild for the majority of people, about one in 150 people who contract the virus will develop a severe illness. If the virus enters the brain (an infection known as encephalitis) or the area surrounding the brain or spinal cord (an infection known as meningitis), the disease can be fatal.

Those people who are most at risk of developing serious illness once they’ve been infected are those over the age of 50 and those who have a weak immune system.

Should I be concerned?

Although the majority of people who contract the virus experience mild symptoms if any at all, the possibility of developing a serious, life-threatening infection is real. If you or your child develops any of the symptoms listed above, contact your doctor.

How can I protect my child from West Nile virus?

The best way to ensure protection from the West Nile virus is to prevent exposure to mosquito bites. Here are some suggestions:
  • Apply insect repellent to your child’s exposed skin while outdoors.
  • Use insect repellents that contain the active ingredient DEET. DEET is considered the best defense against mosquito bites. Other alternatives are those containing picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
  • Read the label of your insect repellent: choose products that contain 10-30% DEET.
  • Don’t use insect repellent on infants less than two months of age.
  • Consider staying indoors or wearing long pants and sleeves at dusk and dawn when mosquitos are most active.
  • Empty any standing water that could serve as mosquito breeding sites: flower pots, buckets, kiddie pools, bird baths, or tire swings.
  • Utilize screens on your doors and windows to keep mosquitos out of the home; repair holes if necessary.

For more information on West Nile virus: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention