Be Aware – Not Afraid – of West Nile Virus
First, the bad news: Mosquitoes are back, they’re biting and they could potentially give you a serious illness known as West Nile virus. Now, the good news: Most people who get West Nile virus don’t even know it, and serious complications are extremely rare.
So what’s the takeaway when it comes to this summertime threat? Be aware, take precautions, but don’t let fear of West Nile virus spoil your summer plans, advises Lisa Viola, DO, Avera Medical Group Neurologist.
“First, to contract this disease, you must be bitten by a mosquito that carries West Nile virus,” Viola said. The Culex type of mosquito carries it. An infected mosquito bites an uninfected bird, the virus amplifies within the bird, and then an uninfected mosquito bites the bird, is infected and can transmit it. “Humans are an incidental host in this transmission cycle,” Viola said.
Some 80 percent of people infected with West Nile virus will not show any symptoms. Another 20 percent of people will get mild flu-like symptoms known as West Nile fever – fever, body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people will also get a rash on their torso, back and arms.
Less than 1 percent of people infected will get neurologic involvement, such as encephalitis or meningitis (inflammation of the brain or surrounding tissues), or polio type symptoms, like weakness or partial paralysis. Within that 1 percent, there is fairly high mortality rate of 10 percent. Some people can go into a coma and need to be on a ventilator. While most people who experience these serious complications do recover, there can be lingering effects, such as headaches, weakness or even memory loss.
If West Nile virus is suspected, a blood test can show if antibodies to this virus are rising in the bloodstream. For most people, there’s no need to seek medical attention if symptoms are minor.
“There’s no medication that we can give to cure this virus. We can only treat the symptoms and provide supportive critical care when the effects of this illness are serious,” Viola said.
Seek medical attention for symptoms such as severe headaches, high fever, stiff neck or confusion. A serious case of West Nile virus often requires hospitalization.
Although rare, because West Nile Virus can be so severe, it calls for taking precautions:
- Wear insect repellant when out in the evenings, especially after dark
- Cover up with long sleeves or long pants
- Stay away from standing water where mosquitoes breed, and eliminate such breeding sites around your home
It only takes one bite to transmit West Nile virus, and getting bitten a number of times doesn’t make the illness worse. However, multiple bites do increase your chances of getting bitten by a mosquito that is carrying virus.
Like other viruses, the very young, the elderly and people who are immunocompromised are at greatest risk for West Nile.
“Serious cases of West Nile virus are so rare that it is not something people should worry about or stay inside all summer to avoid. And, just because you’re bitten by a mosquito does not mean that you’ll get West Nile virus,” Viola said. “On the other hand, it’s good to take the steps you can to prevent mosquito bites that can lead to possible transmission of this potentially serious virus.”