Mosquito bites carry danger of West Nile Virus

Anyone who’s lived in the South for any length of time knows there are two flying pests that are difficult to avoid — mosquitoes and gnats.

You can count of them in the long warm and hot months we have, and they’re known to show up during the cold months when the weather is milder than normal.

While gnats are still essentially pests, mosquitoes are a legitimate health hazard as the number of cases of West Nile Virus — an illness borne from the parasitic insect — has jumped to four times the usual number of cases, something that officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe as one of the largest outbreaks of the disease ever in the United States.

According to CDC statistics for the year as of Tuesday, Georgia had 14 confirmed West Nile cases. In our region, Southwest Georgia Health District officials say there have been a dozen cases and that three older people in our region died from causes related to the illness, though those deaths had not been counted on the CDC website as of Wednesday afternoon.

Normally, CDC officials say, you can expect about 300 cases of West Nile by mid-August. This year, there have already been 1,118 cases reported, with 400 of those coming in the past week alone. Of that 1,118, 629 cases were classified as neuroinvasive, meaning the patient’s nervous system had been affected, with the rest primarily experiencing West Nile fever. There have been 41 deaths nationally attributed to the illness by the CDC as of Tuesday, and the vast majority of cases reported so far — 537 with 19 deaths — have been reported in Texas. In fact, about three-quarters of the U.S. cases recorded through Tuesday were in Texas and four other states: Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

Fortunately, the CDC says that about 80 percent of the people who contract West Nile Virus show no symptoms, while nearly 20 percent of those who do exhibit symptoms have only mild ones, such as fever, headache, body ache and nausea.

But for a little under 1 percent of the people who are infected (about one out of every 150), the symptoms are severe. Those patients can face high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. The symptoms can last several weeks, and neurological effects can be permanent.

So what do you do?

“We wish there was a vaccine for this disease,” Southwest Health District Health Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, since we have no vaccine, the best protection is to avoid getting bitten by the mosquitoes that carry the infection.”

That, of course, is no easy feat, but there are things people can do to protect themselves, such as:

n Avoiding outdoor activity when mosquitoes are most active (at dawn and at dusk);

n Covering exposed skin when outside;

n Using an insect repellent with active ingredients such as DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus or picaridin;

n Draining any standing water where mosquitoes can incubate;

n Repairing screens on windows and doors to keep the insects out.

This is one of those situations where the best medicine is exercising — exercising common sense.