West Nile a concern for Southwest Georgia

ALBANY, Ga. -- West Nile is no stranger to the Albany area, but there have been no confirmed cases in the region this season -- and officials with the Southwest Public Health District would like to keep it that way.

The only way to do that is to avoid getting bitten.

West Nile, a potentially dangerous mosquito-borne illness for which there is no vaccine, generally peaks in the area in August.

A count of cases for the Southwest Georgia region going back to 2002 shows that there have been 18 confirmed cases since that time, one of which was last year. Of those, there have been 14 hospitalizations and three deaths.

The most recent of the fatalities was in 2006. That year, a Dougherty County man who succumbed to the illness was the only one to die in Georgia.

"It's been around for several years," said Dewayne Tanner, the district's environmental health director. "We haven't had any cases at this time (this year), but we do know West Nile is in mosquitoes in the area."

Mosquitoes tend to breed in standing water, so experts say it is more of a concern now that recent rains have brought more water into the region.

"The mosquitoes stay dormant until the rain comes. After a big rain, (the population) increases," Tanner said.

Around 80 percent of those infected with West Nile show no symptoms, while up to 20 percent have symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a rash.

These symptoms can last for a few days to several weeks in a healthy individual, district officials say.

"Cases generally aren't identified unless the patient is really sick," Tanner said.

Those at risk of experiencing complications and severe illness from a West Nile infection include older adults, people who have received an organ transplant, young children and people with a compromised immune system.

One out of roughly 150 people infected with West Nile virus develop serious symptoms.

There is no specific treatment available for the virus. People with severe cases are hospitalized and receive supportive care such as intravenous fluids and respiratory treatment.

To reduce the risk of being bitten, experts say you should:

-- Avoid outdoor activity at dawn and at dusk, when mosquitoes are most active;

-- Cover exposed skin when outside;

-- Use insect repellent with active ingredients such as DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus or picaridin. The higher the percentage of DEET, the longer the protection will last;

-- Drain standing water;

-- Repair screens.

It usually takes two to 15 days for symptoms to appear after exposure to the infection. Symptoms of severe West Nile virus include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis.

These symptoms may linger for several weeks. Neurological effects may be permanent.

On July 6, a 52-year-old woman from Chatham County tested positive for West Nile -- the first Georgia case of the season. Four days later, an 85-year-old man from Glynn County started presenting symptoms consistent with the disease.

Since then, officials have found more than 100 mosquito sampling pools in the state positive for the virus.