West Nile Virus Update

Related topics: Health & Wellness

Seniors should take steps to avoid infection

Bug spray

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that we are in the midst of one of the largest outbreaks of West Nile virus ever seen in the United States since the disease first appeared in the country in 1999. The disease has been reported in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.  West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes. Infection with the virus can cause severe and sometimes fatal illness.

Epidemiologists aren't certain why the outbreak is so major this year, but they speculate that the unusually mild winter, early spring, and hot summer in many parts of the country might have created ideal conditions for the flourishing of the type of mosquito that spreads the virus. The risk will remain high throughout early fall, so it is important to protect against mosquito bites and to be aware of symptoms.

West Nile virus is especially dangerous for older adults. Most of the deaths due to the disease have been among people over 50 years old. Half of those deaths were among people over 77 years old. People who are already in poor health should be concerned; healthy, active older adults who spend time working and exercising outdoors have also been affected.

The symptoms of West Nile virus usually appear within a few days to a few weeks after a person is bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Head and body aches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Swollen glands
  • Rash
Symptoms usually last for a few days or weeks. About one in 150 patients will develop severe illness, including high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. These neurological effects may be permanent. People who develop symptoms of severe West Nile virus should seek medical attention immediately.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

The CDC says that while public mosquito control activities are one part of control, it is also important for individuals to take personal protective steps, such as using repellent, keeping window screens in good condition, and removing potential household mosquito breeding sites. Collaboration between the community, the family and the individual is needed to achieve the best prevention of West Nile virus infection. The CDC shares information to help seniors and families reduce the chance of infection:

  • Avoid mosquito bites. When you are outdoors, use insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient.
  • Prime mosquito-biting hours are usually dusk to dawn. Pay special attention to protection during these hours, or avoid being outdoors.
  • You can reduce the number of mosquitoes around your home. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, so check your yard once a week: get rid of containers that aren't being used, empty water from flower pots, change water in bird baths, and maintain clean gutters.
  • Install or repair window and door screens, and make sure they are in good condition.  

Fight the Bite

For More Information
Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) West Nile virus resource page, "Fight the Bite," to learn more about this year's outbreak and about protecting yourself from infection.

Photo: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)