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West Nile now a year round threat

With Two human cases of West Nile virus reported in Mississippi already this year, residents should look for and eliminate possible mosquito breeding grounds and prepare with repellents.

No deaths were reported in those two cases and most of the population appears to be immune to the virus, but for those who are not, the illness can be debilitating.

Prevention is the best course of action. Prevention involves eliminating mosquito breeding grounds of standing water. Educating children on how to dispose of standing water will help, said Sharon Sims with the Mississippi Health Department.

“Hopefully, (children are) going to take that with them, dumping breeding sites, when they go to grandma’s house,” Sims said.

West Nile virus is an arbovirus, which means it is transmitted by mosquitoes. Only one kind of mosquito among Mississippi’s 58 species transmits the virus, and they pick it up from birds. If bitten by an infected mosquito, less than one percent of the human population will become seriously ill. About 80 percent of the population will show no symptoms of the virus if they are bitten by an infected mosquito, Sims said. The other 20 percent will only exhibit a fever if bitten.

“So it’s really hard to get it, the severe illness. But trust me, you don’t want it,” Sims said.

If contracted, the rare one percent of the population would exhibit severe fever, headache, confusion, disorientation, aggression, acute paralysis and muscle weakness, Sims said. Lingering effects are felt by those who survive the severe illness. Sims said that she has heard people claim during West Nile support groups that food does not taste the same after contracting the virus. Other lingering effects include depression, fatigue and memory loss.

The Health Department no longer conducts birds testing because of a lack of funding. Sims said the best indicator of the presence of West Nile is in mosquitoes. Mosquito pools appear to be better indicators, which are a collection of one species of mosquito collected from traps, ground up and tested. Picayune uses a trap to look for mosquitoes, she said.

While the Health Department does not test dead birds, they do ask that residents call to report dead birds for record keeping. Reports of dead birds can be directed to 1-877-WST-NILE.

People of all ages can be affected by West Nile, but adults 50 and older are affected at a higher risk. The fatality rate for those that contract severe cases of West Nile is between three and 15 percent.

During 2007 about 135 cases of West Nile were reported in Mississippi. Four of those cases resulted in deaths. So far this year only two cases have been reported but with the warm summer months coming mosquito activity will increase.

Mosquitoes pick the virus up from birds who carry the disease in their bodies. When the mosquito bites the bird it carries the virus to other life forms, such as horses and humans. Sims said there have been rare documented cases of squirrels, dogs, cats and alligators also contracting the virus. There is no treatment for West Nile. Medical personnel can only treat the symptoms, Sims said.

In addition to reducing breeding grounds by eliminating standing water, Sims suggested using fish in bodies of water where the water can not be eliminated. There also are granules that can kill mosquito larvae. To protect from bites, Sims suggested using repellents that have the ingredient DEET. Repellents with lower concentrations of DEET work just as well as those with higher concentrations, only the lower concentration formulas must be reapplied more often, Sims said.

More information about West Nile can be found at www.healthyms.com.