West Nile virus first emerged in the United States in 1999. It quickly spread from a number of infected birds to mosquitos, which eventually transferred it to the human population in a number of states. It abated with the cold weather but in the 10 years since it arrived, 130 people a year have died as the result of this mysterious illness.
Thankfully, we know a bit more about the illness today than we did when it first appeared. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has released a number of precautions that we can take to help minimize the risk of contracting West Nile virus.
How it Spreads
West Nile virus is known as an arbovirus, that is to say, that it is arthropod-borne. It is spread to humans and other animals by infected mosquitoes. It can also be spread through transfusions of infected blood, which is why all donated blood in the United States is now being checked for signs of West Nile virus.
West Nile virus can cause a number of flu-like symptoms that can last for several weeks. Around 20 percent of people infected with the virus have basic symptoms which include: headache, fever, body aches, swollen lymph glands, nausea or vomiting, and a persistent rash on their chest, stomach or back. One in 50 people, however, will face much more severe symptoms.
The virus can, of course, hit much harder than the flu. Some of these very severe symptoms can persist for many weeks after the initial infection. These include high fever, headache or neck stiffness, disorientation, tremors, convulsions, vision loss, numbness, stupor, paralysis, and even coma. Many of the neurological symptoms can even be permanent.
Even more worrying than the somewhat unpleasant array of symptoms possible with West Nile virus is the fact that 80 percent of people infected with it don’t know they have it. That’s right, 80 percent of people infected with the virus are asymptomatic. What’s worse is the fact that they might not even know about it for up to 14 days after initial infection.
As we have discussed earlier, death is a possible outcome of the West Nile virus. The illness only kills about 10 percent of those diagnosed, but it is a possibility. It kills by crossing the barrier from the blood into the brain and impacting normal brain function and impulses. This interferes with the vascular and respiratory systems.
What to Do?
Now, you may be asking yourself, “Sure, we know it can kill us, how do we prevent that from happening?” As it turns out, prevention is the best way to fight this particular illness. Once you’ve got it, it has to run its course before leaving the body, so the best way to combat West Nile virus is to avoid contracting it in the first place.
The best way to prevent West Nile virus is to prevent those who transmit the disease from biting you. Mosquitoes are the main culprit in all this and by minimizing your contact with those pesky buggers, you can ultimately minimize your risk of contracting West Nile virus. Here are some tried and true methods for beating back the bugs.
The Health Department has broken down the prevention of West Nile virus into a handy and easy-to-follow series of three suggestions. It is broken down into the three R’s: reduce, repel, and report. The first of them, reduce, refers to helping minimize the number of potential sites where mosquitoes can breed.
Getting rid of stagnant water is the most important precaution to take. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in stagnant water and they don’t like to fly too far away from where they’ve mated and bred. The fewer spots around your home that they can lay their eggs, the less likely they’ll be to be buzzing around your backyard.
Ways to Remove
Ways to check this first R off your list involve emptying excess water from flower pots, cleaning pet food and water dishes often, and making sure any birdbaths in the yard are emptied of stagnant water at least twice a week. Other sources of stagnant water include swimming pool covers, buckets, and garbage cans. Overstuffed rain gutters are also overlooked locations of stagnant water.
If your neighborhood is particularly buggy, it is also recommended that you consider staying indoors at dawn, dusk, and in the early evening. These are peak mosquito biting times. If you must go outside, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants if possible and place mosquito netting on strollers if you’re outside with infants.
Also, if you are lacking door or window screens and you happen to live in a place prone to bugs, it may behoove you to purchase and install screens in all your windows to keep the bugs out of your house. If you own such screens, make sure you check for any rips or tears and repair them if necessary.
Besides just wearing long-sleeved clothing, a good way to repel insects is by using, you guessed it, insect repellent. Repellents that are especially effective against mosquitoes are those that include DEET (diethyltoluamide — the active ingredient in most insect repellents). You can spray yourself with a number of commercially available products and even protect your home by having professionals come and spray.
These outdoor treatments are common and most treatments are safe to use all summer. If you are in an area that is particularly mosquito-laden, then you can spray clothing with repellents containing permethrin or any other EPA-registered repellent. Please note, repellents containing permethrin should be used sparingly, as the active ingredient can cause skin rash and irritation.
There are many brands of insect repellent that work to effectively ward off boxelder bugs, stink bugs, wasps, earwigs, spiders and many other backyard vermin. Most importantly for our purposes, these specifically work to help kill and repel mosquitoes. Many people aren’t interested in dangerous chemicals, they prefer to repel mosquitoes by natural means.
Skin Armour Deep Woods Outdoor Soap is a completely natural product made from natural oils rather than harsh chemicals. This new product effectively creates long-lasting skin protection against mosquitoes. Citronella plants and candles offer some respite, but they aren’t nearly as effective as many other commercial products.
In addition to taking all of these precautions, there is one that the Health Department thoroughly recommends. The third R refers to report and it means that anyone who finds dead birds and stagnant water in or around their area should report it to them as soon as possible. This is so that they can collect mosquito samples and the dead birds to test for evidence of the virus.
If West Nile virus is discovered in these samples, it could be an indicator that the surrounding human population might be experiencing cases without even knowing it. The best way for the CDC to help minimize the risk to the general population is by understanding where the virus pops up and taking precautions to rid the area of infected animals.
Over the years, the virus has lessened in intensity and thankfully, in casualties. Nevertheless, the West Nile virus is still a dangerous illness and is no less dangerous than it was two decades ago. Infants, newborns, and the elderly or infirm are still as much at risk as they were in 1999 and should, therefore, be protected.
Taking precautions and being mindful of your health and environment is the best way to avoid a dire result when it comes to West Nile virus. If you suspect a mosquito bite has made you sick, don’t second-guess yourself, see a doctor immediately. Quick treatment and recognition is the best defense of all.