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What’s that Disease? West Nile Virus


Aren’t there times when you see a disease mentioned in a headline, but you don’t read the article? We don’t want you to be in the dark about these illnesses that are on the health radar screen. This month, we’re going to cut through some of the lengthy information you’d get in those articles. Instead, we’ll give you a concise description of what the disease is, what the treatments are and how the disease is contracted.

West Nile Virus
The Centers for Disease Control sounds ominous in its description of West Nile Virus when it says, “…the subsequent spread in the United States may be an important milestone in the evolving history of this virus.”

Where did it start?
West Nile virus was initially found in humans, birds and other animals in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It was first found in the U.S. in the early summer of 1999.

It has been documented in the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin.

How do you get it?
People can get West Nile virus when a mosquito that has the virus bites them. Mosquitoes get the virus when they feed on infected birds.

Does this mean that if I get a mosquito bite, I’ll get West Nile virus?
No, not at all. The mosquito would have to be infected with the virus. Even in areas where mosquitoes are infected, only small amount of them—1 percent—actually have the virus.

If a mosquito that bites you is infected, chances are low that you will get very sick. Only about 1 percent of the people who become infected with the virus become severely ill. People older than 50 have the highest risk of severe disease.

What happens if I do get sick from an infected mosquito?
You would develop what’s called West Nile encephalitis, usually about 3 to 15 days after being bitten. The West Nile virus multiplies in the blood system and cross what’s called the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain.

Most people develop only mild symptoms, such as fever, headache and body ache. Skin rash and swollen glands occasionally occur as well. More severe infections are characterized by headache, high fever, stiff neck, confusion, coma, trembling, convulsions, muscle weakness, paralysis and, rarely, death.

How is it treated?
There is no specific treatment for West Nile. Healthcare providers would treat your symptoms, if necessary. You may receive intravenous fluids, care for airway management, prevention of secondary infections such as pneumonia, etc.

There is currently no vaccine, but researchers are working on one.

Can I catch the virus from someone else?
No. The virus is not transmitted from person to person.

How do I prevent West Nile infection?
The only real way to prevent an infection is to avoid being bitten by an infected mosquito. Wear long sleeves and long pants, especially when outside at dawn, dusk and during the nighttime hours. Apply mosquito repellant that contains DEET, and be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for use. Spray clothing with repellant as well.

For more information about West Nile virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American Liver Foundation; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The Lupus Foundation of America; The New York Times, 25 February 2002, 14 May 2002
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