Question of the Week: How Bad Is West Nile Virus?

August 24, 2012 | By | Comments (1)

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West Nile

Photo by Steve Bender in hazmat suit. Mosquito and sprayer probably dead.

Q: I’m in a fog about mosquitoes and West Nile virus. Is the 2012 epidemic really as bad as they say on TV? Ina Tizzy

A: First, let’s get one thing straight. Almost nothing is as bad as they say on TV. Television loves to panic people, because panicked people watch more TV.

Second, calling West Nile virus an “epidemic” seems a little hyperbolic, dontcha think? Although Dallas recently declared a health emergency (almost half the reported WNV cases are from Texas), and Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Dakota have reported higher-than-usual numbers of infections, as of August 23 the Center for Disease Control reported about 1,100 cases nationwide and 41 deaths in a country of 300 million people. By Grumpy’s calculations, that’s a death rate for the general population of about 0.0000013% — hardly another Black Death.

To give you some perspective, USA Today recently reported on a very dangerous bacterium called Clostridium difficile, expected to infect 500,000 Americans this year and kill 30,000 of them. Why isn’t TV making a big deal about this? Because the bacterium mainly infects people in hospitals and nursing homes. And if you’re not planning on going to either of those places any time soon, you probably won’t panic.

Finally, Ina, if you’re still outside standing in that cloud of DDT, go indoors now! Don’t die along with the skeeters.

How Did An Egyptian Virus Get Here?
No one knows for sure. It could have arrived via an infected tourist or an animal. We do know that it first grabbed attention in New York in 1999, when infected crows started dropping from the skies. Mosquitoes sucking blood from infected crows became infected. These mosquitoes subsequently bit and infected people and other birds. Infected people stayed put for the most part, but the birds flew all over the country, spreading the virus hither and yon.

How Easy Is It To Get Infected With West Nile Virus?

Mosquito

Asian tiger mosquito. Photo courtesy savcps.com

Easier than running over an armadillo on the highway. Forty-three species of mosquitoes carry West Nile virus, including the common house mosquito that makes life miserable outdoors in the cool dusk-to-dawn hours. It’s also carried by the Asian tiger mosquito that has quickly colonized the South. That’s a lot worse, because Asian tigers hunt for blood 24 hours a day, no matter how hot it is. So if you’re outside in summer and not wearing insect repellent, you’re going to get bitten, Bubba. A lot.

What Are the Symptoms of West Nile Virus?
Fever, nausea, headache, and skin rashes on the chest, stomach, and back. High-risk folks (see below) can develop high fever, disorientation, coma, convulsions, vision loss, and paralysis.

If I Get Bitten, Will I Suffer Horribly and Die?
Highly unlikely. You stand a better chance of getting divorced by Tom Cruise.

Here’s the thing. Like most infectious diseases, the people hit hardest are the very young, very old, and those with compromised immune systems. The CDC says that 80% of people infected with WNV will show no symptoms at all. Their immune systems take care of it. Having been bitten by Alabama mosquitoes, oh say, a million times, Grumpy is sure he has contracted WNV. No problem. I’m more scared of toenail fungus. That’s not to say I don’t feel bad for those who do have serious complications.

What Are Some Ways to Reduce West Nile Virus?
The first thing that comes to mind is kill the mosquitoes that carry the virus. How many of you remember trucks spewing great clouds of insecticide (probably DDT) up and down city streets on summer nights when you were kids? Ah, those were the days. Some towns are even considering spraying right now. Problem is, spraying kills many more things than mosquitoes. You can’t control where it goes. And do you really want clouds of insecticide engulfing your pets, vegetable gardens, and peeping-toms? (Actually, it’s OK in the latter case. Serves ‘em right.)

Instead, how about taking some common-sense measures to avoid being bitten?

  • Wear insect-repellent containing DEET, picardin, or lemon eucalyptus oil on skin and clothing when you’re outside and mosquitoes are active.
  • Thin out brush around your home that keeps air from freely moving. Mosquitoes aren’t strong fliers and dislike breezy spots.
  • Regularly empty water from saucers, pots, buckets, and other containers where mosquitoes breed. Make sure your roof gutters drain. Place mosquito dunks containing a safe, biological pesticide in birdbaths and ponds to kill mosquito larvae. They don’t harm wildlife or people.
  • DON’T BE AN IGNORAMUS and buy a bug-zapper. Mosquitoes are attracted by CO2, not light. You’ll torch moths and grill some beetles, but you won’t kill mosquitoes.

COMMENTS

  1. Chris

    So….To avoid m-bites, the best thing is to avoid breathing. Good to know.

    August 26, 2012 at 10:27 am