This summer’s West Nile virus outbreak is on track to be the biggest since the disease first reached the United States in 1999.
So far this year, 1,118 people have been infected – and 41 of them have died, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency has never before seen that many infections in people as of this time of year.
So what does this mean for you?
The good news is that most people who get West Nile virus have no symptoms, although the disease can be serious if it reaches your brain. Certain populations, like people over 50 and those with weakened immune systems, are at a greater risk.
Preventing the disease won’t cost you much time or money. More on that later, but first let’s take a closer look…
What is West Nile virus?
WNV is a relatively new infectious disease. It’s not considered to be contagious: the virus isn’t transmitted from person to person like the common cold – except in rare instances, only by the bite of an infected mosquito.
The microbe, or micro-organism, that causes this particular infection belongs to a group of disease-causing viruses called flaviviruses, which usually spread by tics or mosquitoes, say the National Institutes of Health. West Nile virus in particular is usually spread by mosquitoes that feed on the blood of infected people or birds.
Other diseases caused by flaviviruses include yellow fever and dengue fever.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most people with West Nile virus have no symptoms, and about 20 percent experience only mild symptoms (like a fever, headache, body ache, and fatigue) that go away on their own. But for about 1 percent of people, the virus crosses the blood-brain barrier, causing a serious neurological infection that affects the brain and spinal cord. Serious symptoms (like severe headaches, a stiff neck, and an altered mental state) merit urgent medical attention.
Where is West Nile virus?
WNV was discovered in 1937 in Uganda, which Africa’s Nile River flows through. According to the NIH, it’s most common in Africa, West Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. But it surfaced in the New York City area in 1999 and has since been found in every continental state.
Most of this year’s cases are in Texas, with Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Oklahoma coming in second place. Check out the CDC’s infection map and table to find out if any of this year’s cases or deaths occurred in your state.
How to avoid West Nile virus
There is no vaccine to prevent WNV, but it’s easy to protect yourself…
- Flush out mosquitoes. They usually lay their eggs on standing water, so walk around the outside of your entire home looking for any places where water has collected or could collect: planters, saucers, buckets, garbage cans, gutters, tire swings, kiddie pools. Empty them out and, if possible, drill a hole in the bottom of them so they automatically drain before water can accumulate. (For kiddie pools, store them standing up on their side when they’re not in use.) Then repeat this process weekly.
- Screen your home. Make sure all your windows have a screen and that the screen doesn’t have any gaps or holes that a mosquito could fit through.
- Suit up. Wear pants and long-sleeve shirts outside when possible.
- Protect your skin. Spray exposed skin – and clothing (to stop mosquitoes from biting through clothing) – with a bug repellant that contains an active ingredient that’s registered with the EPA, which basically means it’s safe and effective when applied according to the directions. Check out the EPA’s bug repellant search tool for more help.
- Avoid twilight. Mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn, so consider staying indoors during those times or be extra careful if you go outside.
- Report dead birds to authorities. Informing your local health department helps the experts who monitor the spread of West Nile virus, which has been seen in more than 130 bird species. Just don’t handle the dead birds.