West Nile Virus Questions and Answers

September 7, 2004

by Laura Dolson

I've Never Heard of West Nile Virus. What is it? West Nile Virus is a disease carried to people by birds and mosquitoes. For a long time, West Nile Virus was unheard of in the U.S. Then, in 1999, there were cases discovered on the East Coast. Over the next few years, the disease pattern moved across the country, until last year there were 3 cases in humans in California. Last week, three dead birds with the virus were found in Santa Cruz County. It's only a matter of time before people here get it - in fact, they may already have done so without knowing it.

Most cases of WNV occur in late summer and early fall. This year so far, California has more cases of West Nile Virus than any other state.

How Do People Get It? West Nile virus (WNV) resides mainly in birds. Mosquitoes carry the virus from birds to humans by biting a bird, and then biting a human. In general, people cannot get it from each other. Some other mammals (such as horses) are susceptible to WNV, but dogs and cats do not appear to get the virus.

What are the Symptoms of WNV? Most people who are infected by the virus do not get sick at all, but about 20% will get West Nile Fever. The symptoms of West Nile Fever are similar to the flu - fever, headache, and body aches, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the trunk. Symptoms are usually gone in a few days, though sometimes they last for several weeks. Most people who get West Nile Fever are middle-aged or older.

In about 1 infected person in 150, the virus invades the central nervous system and cause more serious illness. These people can get meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), or West Nile Poliomyelitis, which can cause paralysis. Most (but not all) of the cases of this severe form of WNV are in older people, or in people who's immune systems are damaged. A few of these people die from the disease. If you or anyone you know get the following symptoms, they should get to a doctor or hospital right away: high fever with severe headache, stiff neck, or confusion, or sudden muscle weakness or paralysis.

The best ways to prevent West Nile Virus:

1) Avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes.
- Stay away from mosquitoes as much as possible. They tend to be present more at dawn and dusk, and especially in damp or swampy areas.
- Wear long sleeves and long pants when and where mosquitoes are likely to be present.
- When outside, wear an insect repellent containing DEET, and use according to directions.
2) Reduce the number of places where mosquitoes can reproduce by preventing and removing standing water around your home and in your community. Arizona is having many more cases of WNV this year, and this is thought to be partly due to the many abandoned swimming pools there. But mosquitoes can breed in as little as a teaspoon of water. Everyone should make sure there are no containers or other places where water can collect around their yard.

Another thing you can do to help is to report dead birds, especially dead crows, ravens, magpies, jays, sparrows and finches that may have been dead less than 48 hours. Call the state’s toll free line: 1-877-WNV-BIRD. Don't touch the bird without gloves, and put the bird in two plastic bags.

There is more information on West Nile Virus at Web site of the Santa Cruz County Public Health Department. Information and flyers on prevention can be found on their Fight The Bite Page.

Discussion Questions:

1) One of the most important things we can do prevent West Nile Virus is to eliminate places for mosquitoes to breed. Remembering that only a teaspoon of standing water is necessary for this to happen, what are some places around your yard where mosquito breeding could occur?
2) Some communities are considering or have begun spraying to kill mosquitoes. What do you think of this idea? What things should be taken into consideration when deciding what a community should do to protect themselves from the virus?

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