The West Nile Virus is Alive and Well
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By Bill Hoagland
With all the concern over COVID 19 for the past year and a half, like many others, I had essentially forgotten about the West Nile Virus (WNV). Recently, however, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced that mosquitoes infected with WNV had been found in nearby Greene County, and that piqued my curiosity about the current status of WNV in Illinois and elsewhere. Just how much of a risk does WNV present here in Illinois? I did some preliminary research and discovered that this virus is definitely still alive and well and the risk exists, but perhaps not as much as I had assumed. If you are concerned about being exposed to WNV and that is understandable, here is some information that may be helpful.
As most people know, the WNV is spread to humans by infected mosquitoes. Mosquitoes become infected when they bite infected birds; birds harboring the virus, at least within the continental US, include crows, blue jays and the beloved robin. Once a human becomes infected with WNV because of a mosquito bite, humans do not spread it to other humans.
The WNV was first diagnosed in the West Nile Province of Uganda in 1937 and while it began spreading to other parts of the world, it was not diagnosed in the US until 1999. Despite the fact it took over 60 years for the virus to officially get here, it did not take long for the WNV to infect persons in all states of the continental US. For example, just four years after WNV was first diagnosed in the US, Colorado—a state loaded with mountains, not mosquitoes– led the US with the most diagnosed cases (2,326) and the most deaths (63) for that particular year. More recently, California, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska are states consistently having relatively high numbers of WNV cases according to CDC statistics. In other words, it is not necessarily the “swampy” southern states that present the biggest likelihood of exposure to WNV.
Another odd thing about this disease is that only 20% of those who get exposed actually develop symptoms. The symptoms, which begin to appear between three and eight days after exposure, usually include fever and headaches, and sometimes vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue for several days or even a week or two. As to those who do develop symptoms, only about 1% of these infected persons have what is referred to as the neuroinvasive form of WNV. The neuroinvasive form of WNV is serious business. Symptoms include a high fever, severe headache, confusion, tremors, vision problems and sometimes even a coma. Generally, this is the result of an inflammation of the spinal cord (meningitis) or brain (encephalitis) and either of those conditions can be fatal. The persons most likely to develop meningitis or encephalitis from a WNV exposure are those persons who are over 60 years of age. In fact, the older the person, the greater the risk of developing a neuroinvasive form of WNV but as a practical matter, that risk seems to be low when compared to being vaccinated and still getting COVID 19.
There is no WNV vaccine currently available for humans but ironically, there are at least four WNV vaccines available for horses. Until there is a vaccine for humans, treatment will primarily consist of treating the symptoms rather than the underlying cause. Apparently, there are six vaccine candidates in the works but with COVID 19 struggles still going on, it is going to be a long time before an effective WNV vaccine can be developed for humans.
So in the meantime, if you are concerned about WNV, it would probably be smart to avoid excessive exposure to mosquitoes, especially if you are a senior citizen, until we get colder weather. You know the drill—bug spray, long shelve shirts, avoid being out after dark, and so on. You should also keep track of where outbreaks are being reported by the CDC; they are not necessarily where you would logically assume them to be occurring. As I am writing this column, for example, there is a report of an outbreak of WNV exposures in Idaho, which I find surprising.
If concerned about your own susceptibility to WNV, perhaps you should avoid going where these outbreaks are occurring. It basically boils down to using common sense for the next couple of months. We already have enough medical issues to stew about, don’t we?
Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.