West Nile Virus still a threat

Published 2:17 pm Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mosquito-borne illnesses are seemingly increasing in number, so reducing mosquito numbers is key to avoiding infection.

Mississippi Department of Health West Nile Program Director Sharon Sims stopped in Pearl River County for two days to speak to students and city employees about how the virus works, and about the best methods of prevention.

While most people who are bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus will never know they contracted the illness, a small number of people could develop severe symptoms that could lead to paralysis or even death.

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For comparison, if 100 people were bitten by a mosquito that had West Nile, about 80 of those people would never know they had the virus. Of those remaining, about 18 or 19 would feel as though they had the flu, and get over the illness with little to no long-term side effects. However the few remaining could develop severe symptoms.

So far this year Mississippi has had 193 reported cases of the virus. Of those cases, five people have died, Sims said. No deaths have been reported in Pearl River County so far.

“The bad news is West Nile is here to stay. We’re going to continually have it,” Sims said.

After a person contracts West Nile, three to 15 days may pass before symptoms to occur. Mild cases will include flu-like symptoms such as headache, fever, chills, fatigue, drowsiness and swollen lymph nodes. Most people with mild symptoms will recover and never know they had West Nile.

In the most severe cases, the illness can cause meningitis, encephalitis or even death. Sims said she holds a support group for patients who survived severe cases, and while they lost function in some of their body parts, many over the years recovered some function through physical therapy.

Animals can contract West Nile as well, including cats, dogs, squirrels and horses. While the virus is not deadly to cats and dogs, horses do suffer fatalities from the virus. A vaccine has been successfully developed to protect horses from the virus, Sims said.

Currently, there is no vaccine for humans, although Sims said work is being done in Israel to develop one. However, that research will take a long time due to the need for FDA approval before such a vaccine could become available to the public.

Mosquitos of all kinds are drawn to humans by the carbon dioxide people emit when they breathe, along with body heat. However, of the 65 mosquito species in Mississippi, only one carries the West Nile Virus, the Southern House Mosquito, Sims said.

Protection is the best medicine, including the use of DEET insect repellents, removal of all standing water around a home to reduce breeding and the use of protective clothing when working or playing outside. Sims said it is safe to use insect repellents containing up to 30 percent DEET on children two months and older. Removing standing water from around a home will reduce the number of mosquito breeding sites and limit the number of mosquitos around a home. Sims said most mosquito species do not fly farther than a mile from where they were born.

More information about West Nile and other mosquito-borne illnesses can be found on the Health Department website at http://www.msdh.state.ms.us/