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West Nile Virus: Reason For Worry?

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Over the last couple weeks I have come across a lot of fear about the West Nile Virus. News reports highlight worst outcomes with deaths and the increasing rates of infection. Patients call my office with questions about aches, pains and fevers wondering if they could have West Nile.  Even my father cornered me wondering the significance of this scourge.

Should we be worried? 

The Rise of West Nile Virus

West Nile Virus is transmitted from mosquitoes to either birds, horses or humans and while the virus is more commonly found in regions of Africa (as the name implies), it has spread to other areas of the world. Rates of transmission are on the rise with nearly 2000 cases reported in the US so far in 2012 - the highest rate on record since first reported in 1999.  Though reported in 48 states, most of the cases have been in 6 states:  Texas, Michigan, South Dakota, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. 

45% of the cases have been reported in Texas alone.

What Are the Symptoms of West Nile Virus?

When a person is first bitten and infected by a mosquito carrying the West Nile Virus, there are usually no symptoms. That's right - most people (an estimated 80%) have no illness at all despite being infected, but of the 20% who are symptomatic, most develop a syndrome known as West Nile Fever.

The hallmark symptoms of this illness involve fatigue, fever and headache. Occasionally, a rash on the body, eye pain and/or swollen lymph nodes are seen. This illness is non-specific and non-fatal, though a more severe infection can progress to the tissues of the brain and nerves.  When this happens, a more severe headache, confusion and paralysis can occur. This is where death can occur and so far this year it has happened to 87 people in the U.S.

How is West Nile Virus Treated?

There is currently no treatment for West Nile viral infections and doctors are left with only IV fluids and oxygen to support its victims of severe illness. For this reason, prevention is more important.

Use mosquito repellant and remove stagnant water in the environment where mosquitos breed. Also, if you find a dead bird, do not handle it with bare hands.

Should I Be Worried?

The risk of contracting the severe form of West Nile is extremely small. If you do contract it, however, the odds become immaterial.

It is smart to do what you can to decrease your risk of contracting mosquito bites while the prevalence of this illness seems to be increasing. Driving the worry is the fact that West Nile symptoms are vague at best - most viral syndromes do involve a fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. Because the treatment is supportive either way with a viral infection, save the urgent concern unless the symptoms of more serious disease develop such as confusion or other neurologic complications.

Hopefully this has been helpful in yielding some practical perspective on the latest infectious concern to hit the U.S. and its media sources.

Farewell from Michigan where we jokingly refer to the mosquito as our state bird!

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