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West Nile Virus: What You Need to Know

Mills College Weekly

The news coverage is frightening; West Nile Virus kills another; Fatal Encephalitis, Meningitis… The headlines are enough to leave you hiding in your closet white knuckled, clenching a Costco-sized bottle of insect spray. However, the reality of WNV is much more mundane and reassuring.

The Center for Disease Control classifies the virus as a seasonal epidemic flaring up in the summer and continuing into the fall. WNV first emerged on the east coast of North America in 1999, presenting a threat to public and animal health by effecting humans and horses as well as domestic and wild birds. The virus has also been in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, west and central Asia, and Oceania.

While WNV is a potentially serious illness, its symptoms vary far more then recent headlines lead one to believe. According to the CDC almost 80 percent of people infected with WNV will not experience any illness. Up to 20 percent of those infected will have mild symptoms such as fever, aches, and vomiting lasting several days. Less than one percent of infected people will develop serious illness.

WNV is spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes. The mosquitoes become infected from feeding on infected birds. Both the CDC and California Dept. of Health Services requests that crows, ravens, magpies, or jays that have been dead for less than 48 hours be reported to the WNV hotline (1-877-WNV-BIRD) While you shouldn't touch the birds, the CDC stresses that the virus cannot be spread through casual contact with infected people. You won't get it by touching or kissing another person.

The CDHS tracks the spread and danger of WNV through activity in humans, equines, dead birds, mosquito pools, and sentinel chickens. While the CDHS's report of WNV activity in 56 of California's 58 counties initially seems alarming, closer examination reveals some reassuring nuance. Alameda County reports activity limited to seven dead birds. San Francisco's activity consists of just one bird. Nothing has been detected in humans, equines, mosquito pools, or chickens.

While there is no need to panic, it's still important to do what we can to prevent WNV. The CDC suggests using insect repellents containing DEET as well has wearing long sleeves and pants. Consider avoiding mosquito laden areas, especially around dawn and dusk when they are most active. Get rid of mosquito breeding sites by eliminating sources of standing water such as those found in flower pots or buckets. The CDHS also recommends that doors and windows have tight-fitting screens.

The moral of the story? Don't cuddle strange dead birds. Don't put on your daisy dukes and go swamping at dusk. Mostly, don't let sensationalist news coverage make you paranoid. Mosquito repellant and common sense will serve you well. More information is available online through the CDC and CDHS.