Do You Need to Worry About West Nile Virus?
With the resurgence of reported cases of the West Nile virus, news stories about this virus have been circulating once again. I work and volunteer at a nature center, and many of our visitors have been asking questions about their risks. A few of my friends and family members have also expressed concern for me, considering that I spend a lot of time outdoors in the woods. However, is West Nile really as scary as some in the media make it out to be? How could a person get it, and how do we protect ourselves?
What exactly is the West Nile virus, and how could I get it?
The West Nile virus (WNV) is a virus (obviously) that was first identified in the West Nile subregion of Uganda in 1937. It was found in New York City in 1999, and has since been working its way across North America and into the Caribbean and Latin America. At present, it is also found in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia.
WNV mainly affects birds, but it can affect mammals, including humans, as well. It is a zoonotic disease (something that can pass between animals and people). Sometimes zoonotic diseases require a different organism known as a "vector" to move from one type of animal to another. WNV is an arbovirus, which means the vectors are arthropods. The main arthropod in question here is the mosquito. If a mosquito bites an infected bird and later bites you, you could get the virus. You cannot catch WNV directly from a bird or other animal.
Uh oh, I have a mosquito bite. What are the symptoms of infection?
First of all, not every mosquito is infected. Secondly, around 80% of people who contract the disease don't even know they have it - they have no symptoms at all. If you do experience symptoms, they show up between 3 and 14 days after the bite. Usually, these symptoms will be your classic "flu like symptoms" - fever, fatigue, headache, body ache, nausea, and swollen glands. Some may also develop a rash. Approximately 1% of those infected develop serious neurological symptoms such as disorientation, tremor, convulsions, vision problems, paralysis, or coma.
There is no specific cure for West Nile virus infection, and most people will recover on their own. The specific duration of the illness varies anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Those who experience severe or neurological symptoms should go to the hospital for supportive care.
How can I protect myself?
The main way to protect yourself is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, so the standard mosquito protection rules apply. Keep your doors and windows closed (or make sure your screens are secure). Eliminate standing water in your yard. If you spend time outside, keep your skin covered and apply insect repellent to exposed skin and to clothing. Products with DEET work best, and those with Picaridin will also help keep the mosquitoes at bay. There are natural products on the market as well, but they aren't as effective and require more frequent applications.
The West Nile virus is definitely something you should know about, but don't let fear of it keep you from enjoying your favorite outdoor activities. Just remember to take precautions, and make sure to keep that can of bug spray handy when you head outside.