Facts About the West Nile Virus

What is the West Nile virus? Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms and how to prevent your family from getting it.
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Mosquitoes are having a wonderful summer. At the time of this writing, they have spread the West Nile virus (WNV) to 47 states, leading to over 1100 confirmed cases and 41 deaths. Centers for Disease Control warns that the peak of West Nile will continue through September. This year is the worst West Nile virus epidemic that Americans have ever seen but it's not entirely clear why it's been a bad year.

As a pediatrician in Texas, the state with the most number of cases, I've witnessed West Nile virus phobia firsthand. But before you panic and move to Antarctica (the only place in the world that is mosquito-free), here is what you need to know about West Nile.

Very few mosquitoes actually carry the West Nile virus and less than 1 percent of people who are bitten by a WNV-carrying mosquito will get seriously ill. Mosquitoes become infected with West Nile when they feed on birds that are infected with the virus. The infected mosquitoes spread the virus to people and to other animals that they bite. On rare occasions, the virus can also spread through blood transfusion, organ transplant, breastfeeding, or from mother to baby during pregnancy. Pregnant or breastfeeding women who might have West Nile should notify their healthcare providers for guidance.

People older than 50 with high blood pressure or heart disease are most at risk for severe infection. But about 80 percent of people infected with West Nile never know it because they don't have any symptoms of illness. Those who feel ill begin having symptoms 3 to 14 days after exposure. For most people, infection feels like a flulike illness that includes symptoms of fever, headaches, body aches, nausea, vomiting, and occasionally a rash on the chest, stomach, and back. The serious form of West Nile affects the brain and nervous system, causing severe headaches, neck stiffness, confusion, limb weakness/paralysis, seizure, and, potentially, death.

Because it is a virus, there is no antibiotic to treat the infection. So for mild illness, the best treatment is fever-reducing medication, fluids, and lots of TLC. Once a person has had the infection, he is immune.

Some cities and towns are taking action to reduce the mosquito population by spraying overnight when people are indoors. Although it's unnerving to have pesticides being sprayed into the air you breathe, these products break down quickly and do not remain in the air or soil. People who have severe allergies or asthma are most sensitive to these sprays, so they should be extra cautious about staying inside. But it makes sense for everyone to keep windows closed and to turn off window-unit air conditioners when their community is being sprayed.

Learn how to protect yourself and your family by remembering the three Ds:

Drain: Mosquitoes like puddles and standing water. Get rid of the water in the bird feeder or your baby pool (turn it over when it isn't in use). Look for any buckets, containers, or gutters around your house where water can pool.

Dawn/Dusk: Mosquitoes are most active and looking for their next meal (you!) at these hours. So, if possible, stay indoors during this time of day.

Defend/DEET: Wear long sleeves and pants when you are outside. For babies, it's easy to place insect netting over the stroller or infant car seat. You can pick up stroller netting at your local baby store for less than $10. And don't be afraid to use DEET. DEET-based insect repellents are very effective in preventing mosquito bites and are safe if they are used properly. DEET can be used for kids older than 2 months of age, but DEET-based products should be applied only once a day. Picaridin-based insect repellents are also effective and are approved for all ages. Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an effective repellent, but it is approved only for kids over age three. IR3535 provides protection too. Generally, the higher concentration of an active ingredient means the longer the protection. Ten percent DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 is effective for one to two hours. Fifteen percent DEET, picaridin or IR3535, or 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus, will last for two to four hours. Twenty to 30 percent DEET provides protection for at least five hours.

Bottom line: Don't freak out about West Nile virus and prepare the best defense for your family.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.

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