West Nile precautions are for all ages

Last year’s West Nile virus season was one for the records, but it does not mean that people should become complacent about taking preventive measures this season, according to an expert at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.

“Last year we had the largest epidemic of West Nile that Texas has ever seen,” said Dr. Kristy Murray, associate professor and associate vice-chair of research in the department of pediatrics at BCM and director of the Laboratory of Viral and Zoonotic Diseases at Texas Children’s Hospital. “Normally you will still see a large number of cases in the second year after an outbreak, so it’s important to take preventive measures.”

Oregon’s only human death was in 2006, a person with a compromised immune system. The state saw a peak in illnesses that year, with more than 70 people infected.

The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and can cause disease in birds, horses and humans. It affects people of all ages.

Murray, who is a part of the National School of Tropical Medicine at BCM, notes that West Nile cases and positive mosquitoes are already being seen in some areas of Texas. She offers the following tips to prevent mosquito bites this summer:

n Mosquito repellent is the best line of defense — look for one containing DEET or picardin.

n Avoid being outdoors between dusk and dawn — this is when the mosquitoes carrying the virus are most active.

n During the day, avoid stirring these mosquitoes up in areas that have tall grass. Protect yourself from mosquitoes if you plan to garden or do work outdoors.

n Be sure vulnerable populations, such as older adults and children, are using mosquito repellent.

n Don’t become complacent as the summer goes on — the majority of infections occur between July and September.

n If possible, wear long pants and long sleeves when outdoors.

About 20 percent of those infected with West Nile virus will develop a flu-like illness that can last several weeks and cause fatigue. A smaller percentage may develop a neuroinvasive form of the disease, which means the virus has invaded the brain and spinal cord, causing encephalitis, meningitis and/or paralysis. Those with underlying conditions may have additional complications.

Murray recommends seeing your primary care physician if you develop a fever and headache and you know that you’ve recently had mosquito bites. Murray also encourages physicians to test for West Nile virus if patients have clinical signs of the virus. Testing for the virus is done through a blood test or testing of the spinal fluid.

“Reporting cases of West Nile virus is essential because it alerts public health officials and the community about where they need to focus their prevention efforts as well as focus their mosquito control activities,” said Murray.

Murray says that there is no treatment for the virus, so prevention is key. She also notes that although it was previously thought that this disease affects mostly older adults, they are now seeing infection and complications in people of all ages.

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