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Officials watching mosquito activity

ALBANY -- With the recent unseasonably warm weather has come an early start to mosquito activity this season.

And with that comes the potential for mosquito-borne illnesses, particularly West Nile and Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

So far, there have been no cases reported of either illness -- which comes as a surprise to at least one health official.

"This year, it has been particularly slow," said Jacqueline Jenkins, epidemiologist for the Southwest Public Health District. "Around now, we expect to see some activity. I expect it to happen with the warmer weather.

"With the warmer weather, we have to think about West Nile Virus."

West Nile is spread to people by the bite of a mosquito infected by the virus, which becomes infected by feeding on infected birds. More severe infections are seen in the elderly and those with a weakened immune system. Roughly 80 percent of people infected with West Nile Virus will not develop any type of illness, health officials say.

For the 20 percent of cases in which illness presents, it usually takes two to 15 days after exposure for symptoms to appear. Health experts say symptoms generally last for a few days, but have been known to last for several weeks in some healthy people.

On average, Jenkins said the district sees two or three cases in a year. While the peak activity is generally in the August-to-October timeframe, the climate in Southwest Georgia allows the diseases to circulate all year long, she said.

People with mild infection may experience fever, headache, eye pain, muscle aches, joint pain, a rash on the trunk and swollen lymph nodes. In severe cases, symptoms include extreme muscle weakness, inflammation of the brain, paralysis and coma.

The condition can be fatal in rare instances, particularly in the elderly and people with other medical conditions, health officials say.

Prevention of West Nile can be achieved by taking protective measures from mosquito bites such as limiting time spent outdoors during dawn and dusk; wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants when outdoors; using insect repellents containing DEET, oil, lemon eucalyptus or picaridin when outdoors, and screening homes to prevent mosquito entry.

Reducing mosquito populations can also limit exposure, which people are encouraged to do in their yards by eliminating standing water. As an additional measure, Dougherty County Public Works is often spraying in common problem areas in the unincorporated parts of the county.

Such prevention measures are also helpful in avoiding Eastern Equine Encephalitis, an illness most often seen in Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Health experts say those who spend time outdoors in swampy areas are typically at a higher risk.

The mortality rate for EEE is approximately 33 percent, although many people infected have no apparent illness. Symptoms range from mild flu-like illness to inflammation of the brain and coma.

It usually takes three to 10 days for symptoms to appear after exposure. Approximately half of those who survive EEE will have mild to severe permanent neurological damage. People older than 50 and younger than 15 seem to be at greatest risk for developing severe EEE when infected, public health officials say.