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West Nile Virus: The Key Is Prevention

Updated on January 1, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.

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The year 2012, saw the most cases of West Nile Virus (WNV) in the United States since the disease was first reported in 1999. It’s most likely been in the news in your area. By the end of August 1,590 cases of WNV in humans were reported, with 65 deaths attributed to the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 states have reported cases of WNV in birds, mosquitoes and humans. The report I read didn’t mention horses, but they’re known to contract WNV as well.

Over 70% of the cases have been reported in six states: Texas, South Dakota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Michigan, with 45% of all cases being reported in Texas.

A Short, Informative Q&A

WHAT IS WEST NILE VIRUS?

Originally found in Africa, western Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean region of Europe, WNV is a mosquito-borne disease that causes meningitis (inflammation of the spinal chord) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Officials consider it a seasonal epidemic that flares up in the summer and continues through fall.

HOW IS WNV SPREAD?

Mosquitoes are infected when they take a blood meal from an infected bird, and the mosquito then infects people and animals during the act of taking a blood meal from those hosts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) only birds are known to infect mosquitoes.

WHAT ARE THE HEALTH RISKS TO HUMANS?

Present statistics indicate that about one in 150 people infected with WNV will develop severe illness; the symptoms of which can include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, loss of vision, numbness and paralysis.

There is no specific treatment for WNV and symptoms are treated as they develop. Some symptoms may last several weeks and there can be permanent neurological effects.

Less severe symptoms affect up to 20 percent of infected people. These include fever, headache, and body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach and back.

While symptoms can last for only a few days, CDC reports that even healthy people have become sick for several weeks. The good news is that 80% of people infected with WNV show no symptoms at all.

While that’s cause for celebration, it’s no reason to let your guard down. There are a number of steps you can take to protect your family and livestock from this disease.

WHAT PREVENTIVE MEASURES CAN YOU TAKE?

Since WNV is spread by birds and mosquitoes you should focus your attention on those two species. If you find dead birds on your property, CDC advises, “Don't handle the body with your bare hands. Contact your local health department for instructions on reporting and disposing of the body. They may tell you to dispose of the bird after they log your report.”

I’ve known of instances where health officials came and got the bird, or instructed the homeowner how to safely collect and transport the bird to them for eventual testing.

Protecting yourselves from mosquitoes is of utmost importance. When you’re outside, you’re at risk. The use of personal insect repellents, hats, long sleeves and long pants will reduce your chances of being bitten by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors, by the way, so wearing light colored clothing is best.

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Some jurisdictions have aerial and/or terrestrial spraying programs, and you can also treat your own property with insecticides. One of the most effective preventive programs involves the use of larvicides such as the biological pesticide BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis).

There are many strains of BT that are used effectively against the larval stage of a number of insect and garden pests. If you grow potatoes, for instance, the Colorado potato beetle is your nemesis, and there’s a strain of BT that’s very effective against its larvae.

For mosquitoes, there are a number of biological agents that you can use in standing water, which is where mosquitoes breed. They can be safely used in bird baths, stock tanks, and watering troughs because the biological agents are harmless to all other life forms.

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SOME COMMON BACKYARD LOCATIONS OF STANDING WATER

● Discarded tires ● Cisterns

● Gutters ● Low spots where water collects

● Vernal pools ● Pet Dishes

● Rain barrels ● Junked Autos

Mosquitoes can breed in any puddle that lasts longer than four days, so if it’s not practical to drain potential mosquito breeding grounds, use the BT biological agents to treat standing water.

OTHER RISK FACTORS IN THE SPREAD OF WNV

CDC reports that “In a very small number of cases, WNV also has been spread through blood transfusions, organ transplants, breastfeeding and even during pregnancy from mother to baby. WNV is not spread through casual contact such as touching or kissing a person with the virus.”

All donated blood is checked for WNV before it is used and CDC says that, because the risk of getting the virus from a blood transfusion or organ transplant is very small, the fear of contracting WNV shouldn’t prevent people from getting the surgery they need.

People over age 50 are considered to be at higher risk for developing serious symptoms should they be infected.

WEST NILE VIRUS AS A THREAT TO CATS AND DOGS

This is what CDC says: “A relatively small number of WNV infected dogs and WNV infected cats have been reported to CDC. Experimentally infected dogs showed no symptoms after infection with WNV. Some infected cats exhibited mild, nonspecific symptoms during the first week after infection--for the most part only showing a slight fever and slight lethargy.

It is unlikely that most pet owners would notice any unusual symptoms or behavior in cats or dogs that become infected with WNV. There is no documented evidence of dog or cat-to-person transmission of West Nile virus.”

The evidence suggests that dogs do not develop enough virus in their bloodstream to infect more mosquitoes. Cats develop slightly higher levels of virus in their bloodstream, but it is unclear if this would be enough to infect mosquitoes. It is very unlikely that cats would be important in furthering the spread of the virus.”

For more information about WNV you can follow this link:

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    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      You're welcome, 2besure. We've had a few cases reported around here as well. It's been reported in 48 states; I'd guess the two without it are Hawaii and Alaska but I don't know that for sure.

      I went to a fair in Connecticut on Labor Day and USDA had a booth, which I stopped at. It was a veterinarian who was on duty, so we talked about WNV, he gave me some literature on it, and I used the CDC for additional research. Mosquito control seems to be the front line defense and while it can be deadly, most cases appear fairly easy to handle.

      Nice to have you stop by, thanks for commenting...and y'all be nice to them Democrats down there, y'heah. Regards, Bob

    • 2besure profile image

      Pamela Lipscomb 

      5 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      The West Nile virus has just got to North Carolina. Thanks for this important hub!

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