Spike In West Nile Virus Cases Warrants Attention

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The bit of rain we've seen recently coupled with still-warm temps make this another peak time for mosquitoes and, consequently, West Nile virus.

The Centers for Disease Control says this is the worst year for West Nile in nearly a decade.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Jo-Ann Harris of Topeka's Stormont-Vail HealthCare says West Nile virus is one of those conditions that hits some harder than others. She says only 20 percent of those who get it will have any symptoms. But about one in 150 people will develop a neuro-invasive form of the disease, where it affects their brain and brain lining. When the virus progresses to that point, she says, it can cause long-term problems and, rarely, even death. For that reason, she says, West Nile deserves to have our attention.

This year, it seems the cases are less rare. As of late September, Kansas health officials report 31 probable and confirmed cases, including one death. The state had one confirmed case in all of 2011.

Nationwide this year, 147 people have died from West Nile - 63 of them in Texas. It was so bad, the Dallas area declared a state of emergency and conducted public spraying operations to kill mosquitoes. Mosquitoes transmit the virus to humans.

Preventing the mosquito bites, Dr. Harris says, is the best way to prevent West Nile. That means using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves outside when mosquitoes are active, getting rid of standing water which is the mosquitoes' breeding grounds and pay attention to any symptoms you might feel.

People over the age of 50 are especially susceptible to more serious cases. Dr. Harris says flu-like symptoms with neck pain, severe headache, difficulty finding words and feeling lethargic warrant a call the doctor.

Mosquitoes pick up the virus when they bite infected birds. If you see a dead bird, don't handle it with your bare hands. Unlike the outbreak of 2003, KDHE says it is not collecting dead birds for testing.

What's still unclear is why more cases of the virus are being reported this year. KDHE says some of it may be attributed to awareness, with more people going in for testing. However, Dr. Harris says that doesn't explain the spike in serious cases and deaths. She says everything from migration patters to climate changes to mutations in the virus are being studied.


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