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What You Need to Know About West Nile Virus

Author: Mosquito Squad of Greater Washington DC

Since it was first detected in New York in 1999, the US has seen endemic proportions of the West Nile Virus.  In 2013 alone there were over 2,000 cases with 114 deaths caused by the virus.  Experts suggest mild winters and rainy springs followed by hot temperatures and dry weather have contributed to the rise of the disease as they are the favorable conditions for mosquitoes to breed and thrive.

Taking precautions against mosquitoes can help lessen your fear of the disease and assist in its control, but so can learning about the virus and how you can protect your family without avoiding spending time outdoors.

What is the West Nile Virus?

The West Nile virus has been well known for years in Africa, Eastern Europe, West Asia, and the Middle East.  The Culex species of mosquitoes spread it after being infected through feeding on birds carrying the virus. The mosquitoes transmit the virus through biting animals or humans.  You cannot catch the virus from human to human, and it can’t be spread from animal to animal.  Although rare, people can become infected through blood transfusions or organ transplants.

The virus multiplies once it has entered the bloodstream.  According to the CDC, 1 in 150 people get seriously ill from the virus; if it reaches the brain, it can result in encephalitis – inflammation of the brain and surrounding tissues resulting in severe damage to the whole nervous system.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of the Virus?

Most of the time, people infected with the West Nile virus won’t even know they have it.  The CDC estimate that 80% of people will experience no symptoms at all and the other 20% only coming down with mild flu-like symptoms including fever, headache, fatigue, skin rash and swollen lymph glands.   These symptoms can last anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks.

For those who have a severe infection, symptoms can include a headache, high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, vision loss and in some cases convulsions.  These symptoms can last up to several weeks, and if neurological disorders are caused, they can cause lasting damage.

Who Is at Risk of Contracting the Disease?

You are at greater risk of developing a severe illness after contracting the disease if you are over 50 or have a serious existing medical condition such as cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure.  This is due to the person’s immunity cells being not as robust, reducing their ability to fight infection.

People spending a lot of time outdoors particularly during the periods of dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are more prevalent are at higher risk, especially if they have not done anything to prevent being bitten.

How Do You Find out If You Have Contracted the West Nile Virus & What Is the Treatment?

If you think the virus has infected you, you should contact a health professional.  A blood test can detect any antibodies in the system although in more severe cases, samples of the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord can be collected.

Currently, there is no treatment or vaccination for West Nile virus.  Supportive therapy, such as intravenous fluids and respiratory support, can be administered during hospitalization in serious cases.

How Do You Prevent Being Infected by the Virus?

According to the CDC avoiding getting bitten by mosquitoes is the best way to stay disease-free which can be done by simple measures including:

  • Using an approved mosquito repellent on your skin and clothes when spending time outdoors particularly when they are most active during dawn and dusk.
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants can reduce insect bites as well as mosquito netting over infant carriers.
  • Around the home make sure your windows have screens, and your roof gutters are clean of any debris and draining properly.
  • Remove any standing water that might become a breeding site for mosquitoes and keep pools, hot tubs, and ponds clean.

The public can play a large role in helping track and reduce the spread of the West Nile Virus.  If you see any dead birds in the area, it is best to contact your local health department and avoiding handling it with your bare hands.  Any standing water should also be reported to your local authority to reduce mosquito breeding sites.

In the event the West Nile virus is discovered in your area, mosquito control measures will go into effect including widespread spraying of pesticides.  This can be conducted even before the first case of the disease in humans is reported.

Human cases of the West Nile Virus typically rise at the end of summer and fall so now is the time to learn about the disease and how you can protect your family from being infected.