by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

I heard on the radio that this summer is going to be a bad one for West Nile virus. They were talking about how many cases some areas have had and how many people have died.

USA Today reports 693 cases and twenty-eight deaths scattered through thirty-two states. Last week alone there were 390 cases and eight deaths. And it’s only going to get worse. For some reason West Nile is usually worst in mid-August through mid-September.

It got me to thinking, if it’s this bad now, how much worse it would be during a disaster. We’d probably be outside more, maybe have holes in the inside walls, probably have more mosquitoes due to stagnant water. Could it be one disaster on top of another?

And, for this year, should you and your kids stay inside? Well, hold on answering until you read my list of myths below.

Myth #1: West Nile virus is a death sentence.

Truth: Not for 99.5 percent of people who get it. A full eighty percent don’t sick and never know they have the virus. Nineteen percent stay sick for a few days to (rarely) weeks with a flu-like virus called West Nile fever. Only one percent develop the severe disease, which is West Nile encephalitis (an infection of the brain’s lining) or meningitis (an infection of the spinal cord’s lining.) Half of those either die or have severe brain and nerve damage. That’s one-half of one percent.

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Myth #2: If you develop West Nile fever that’s an ominous sign.

Truth: Not necessarily. Yes, you should see a doctor if you can, but most who get the severe disease start out with it or have fever a day or two max before it gets really bad. Most don’t go from having days of the fever and then the encephalitis or meningitis.

Myth #3: There’s nothing you can do.

Truth: It’s true that since it’s a virus, there no medicine you can take to cure it. There’s also no vaccine to prevent it. But supportive treatment—rest, fluids, your favorite tonic—to boost your immune system can help you fight West Nile virus. For a severe case, you’ll need hospitalization with IV fluids, medicine to decrease brain swelling, oxygen, maybe even mechanical ventilation to help breathing.

Myth #4: Kids are at greatest risk.

Truth: It would seem so since kids get outside more, but the greatest risk to get a bad case is clearly for those over fifty.

Myth #5: West Nile virus is contagious.

Truth: You can’t catch it from another human. Only mosquitoes are known to give it to us. It’s true that mosquitoes transmit it from animals to us. And experts advise avoiding dead birds or at least wearing gloves with them if West Nile is in the area. But the fact is, there’s no evidence that you can get it from animals even if you eat the cooked meat. (I don’t know whether anyone has gotten it from eating uncooked meat, but really ….)

Myth #6. West Nile virus won’t be as bad this year because of the drought.

Truth: At first glance, that should make sense. But mosquitoes love to lay their eggs in even the smallest amount of stagnant water—the dirtier the better; it provides more nutrients. Rain can flush out stagnant water. So, who knew?

 

I hope this allays some fears, but as I learned in my first year of medical school, one percent risk is a hundred percent to the person with the disease.

So, if West Nile is in your area, try to avoid mosquitoes by draining ditches, punching holes in the bottom of tire swings, and turning over pots or anything that has potential to hold stagnant water. Patch all screens and try to stay in around mosquitoes’ favorite times, dusk and dawn.

And use your favorite mosquito repellants. The most effective is still (I can hear some of you gasp) DEET applied to the skin or clothes. Citronella oil and Avon’s Skin So Soft are good alternatives. Know the precautions for anything you use. And for babies still in strollers, try mosquito nets as an alternative.

Do any of you have experience with West Nile virus? Is it going to make you more likely to stay in? And what’s your favorite mosquito repellant? I know I, for one, would like to know.

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Photo by dr_relling on Flickr.