Everything You Need to Know About the West Nile Virus

by Sheryl Kraft

Is this mosquito after you?Is this mosquito after you?

Some perils associated with summer - like sunburns and heatstroke - seem mild compared with the West Nile virus. It's believed that the virus is spread when a mosquito bites an infected bird and then, in turn, bites a person.

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West Nile's roots reach far back - first identified in Uganda in 1937 and then discovered in the New York in the summer of 1999 - the virus has slowly spread throughout the United States. In 2002 and 2003 West Nile virus reached its peak, causing severe illnesses in nearly 3,000 people and resulting in over 260 deaths.

But now this year there are more serious illnesses reported from the virus since 2004, health officials say. So far there have been 241 human cases reported in 22 states with four deaths. Why the uptick? It's believed that the combination of a mild winter, early spring and hot summer make for breeding of the mosquitoes that spread the virus to us. Typically, symptoms develop between 3 and 14 days after the infected mosquito bites you.

Is there reason to panic? Not exactly: few people develop severe disease, or notice any symptoms at all. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only about one in 150 people infected with West Nile virus will develop severe illness. But it's important to know some facts.

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You're at risk if:
You have a condition that weakens the immune system, like HIV, an organ transplant or recent chemotherapy
You're older or very young
You're pregnant
You spend a lot of time outdoors

What you may not know: West Nile virus may be spread through blood transfusions and through an infected mother's breast milk. But…it is not spread through casual contact, like touching or kissing someone with the virus. There's a mild form of the disease, called West Nile fever. It will usually improve on its own. Its symptoms, which usually last for 3-6 days, include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, headache, lack of appetite, muscle aches, nausea, rash, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes or vomiting.

Be aware of the more severe forms of West Nile, called West Nile encephalitis or West Nile meningitis. These can be life threatening and should receive immediate attention. Symptoms include confusion or change in ability to think clearly, loss of consciousness or coma, muscle weakness, stiff neck or weakness of one arm or leg.

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The best ways to avoid West Nile virus:
Avoid mosquito bites; mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn (wear long sleeves and pants during this time)
Use insect repellents
Make sure to patch any holes in screens on windows and doors
Get rid of mosquito breeding sites; empty standing water from flowerpots, buckets and kiddie pools. Change the water in pet dishes and bird baths weekly, and drill holes in tire swings so water drains out.

And finally, to all you animal lovers out there: if you spot a dead bird, do not pick it up with your bare hands! Give your local health department a call to report it. They'll tell you how to best get rid of it.