West Nile virus is back in a big way, with more 50 human cases and two deaths reported in Oklahoma already this year—the most since 2004.
West Nile virus is spread to humans by mosquitoes, which contract the virus from infected birds. Once the virus is in the human body, it begins to multiply rapidly.
“For an illness that can prove so deadly to some, the majority of people who get West Nile virus never even know they have it,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “Only about 20 percent of those infected by the virus will develop West Nile fever, the more severe form of the virus. About 1 in 150 will develop a serious, life-threatening sickness.”
Symptoms of West Nile fever can mimic those of influenza—fever, body aches, headache and general fatigue. Other symptoms can include a rash on the torso and swollen lymph glands. The length of the illness can vary from just a few days to several weeks. Those with the more severe form often require hospitalization.
“West Nile is one of a few viruses that can cross the blood-brain barrier, which means it can affect the spinal cord and brain,” Prescott said. “When that happens, the fever is reclassified as a neuroinvasive disease and is sometimes called West Nile meningitis or encephalitis.”
This more serious form of the disease can cause prolonged high fever, disorientation, a stiff neck, coma and even paralysis. Resulting inflammation in and around the brain and spinal cord can cause permanent neurological damage and, in some cases, death.
“Antibiotics don’t work against viruses, West Nile included,” Prescott said. “Doctors can treat the symptoms, but the virus has to run its course. It’s most dangerous for the very young and very old or people with compromised immune systems, including lupus patients.”
While most people who contract West Nile virus won’t get sick, it’s still best not to get the virus at all, Prescott said. Mosquito repellent with DEET is safe and effective for most people. For those who prefer not to use chemicals, light-colored clothing that covers arms and legs can help protect from bites. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, so try to eliminate puddles and change pet water dishes daily. Use screens on doors and windows to keep the pests out of your house, and stay indoors in the late evening when mosquitoes are most active.
“Late summer and early fall are prime times for West Nile virus because the temperature is right for mosquitoes,” Prescott said. “While your overall risk of contracting the virus is low, if you take the right precautions, your odds can improve significantly.”