West Nile hitting the South hard

By Monika Jain and Monaj Jain MD MPH

Last week, in our subdivision two big white trucks with pipes branching off of them moved slowly along the street. A weird scent filled the air as the truck sprayed a white mist in our neighbors’ and our front lawn. Later, I learned they were spraying insecticide for mosquito elimination, to protect against the West Nile virus.

Although only three cases and no deaths have been confirmed in the Greater Memphis area, West Nile has hit the South hard, especially Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. There have been a record number of cases this year, rivaling 1999’s record which had the highest number of West Nile cases. So far, about 1100 cases and 41 deaths have been reported yet officials believe there is an additional thousand unreported cases.

Often, the West Nile virus infection goes undetected. Of the people infected with West Nile, 80 percent of the people are unaware they have the illness. The remaining 20 percent who contract the virus show the symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, rashes, body aches, and headaches. However, these symptoms can be usually treated with over-the-counter medications, fluids, and lots of rest.

Unfortunately, one percent of the infected patients develop neurological problems, such as brain swelling, tremors, paralysis, and coma, like meningitis. These neuro-invasive cases require hospitalization and take a long time for recovery.

People above the age of 50 and those who have a compromised immune system are at most risk of developing severe symptoms and complications of West Nile virus.  In contrast, nursing and pregnancy does not increase the risk.

The West Nile virus illness is transmitted to humans when people are bitten by an infected mosquito, which receives the West Nile virus infection from an infected bird. At present, the weather is still warm, so the mosquito and bird populations will continue to rise, as will the West Nile cases. But as the weather becomes cooler, birds will begin to migrate farther south, and the mosquito population will dwindle. The number of expected cases of West Nile virus will decline after September and mid-October.

The best way to avoid West Nile virus is simple preventive measures. Mosquitoes are most active during dawn and dusk, so avoid working outside at those times. When outside, don’t wear bright colors that would attract bugs and wear long sleeves and pants. Also, make sure to put on a mosquito repellent with DEET for maximum protection.

Other preventive measure include removing any stagnant water or puddles near the house to prevent mosquito breeding and checking screens on doors and windows to stop insects from entering the house. Since there is no vaccine or treatment against West Nile virus, prevention is the best option.

I haven’t seen any mosquitoes in my neighborhood, but next time I go outside, I’ll put on bug spray with DEET just in case.