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Scary Skeeters: What You Must Know About the West Nile Virus Outbreak

Annoying and now potentially deadly…the common mosquito.
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As of yesterday, 298 cases of West Nile Virus had been reported in North Texas.  In Dallas County, 130 cases have been documented and 8 have resulted in death.  Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS) has been spraying all over the region to control the population of mosquitos carrying the disease.  If you look at this DCHHS map, you can see that pools of mosquitos (still water where mosquitos breed) have tested positive for the disease in many of the zip codes in our area.

Scary stuff, right?

So what’s a mom to do when a tiny bug poses such a risk to her family?  I say: Get informed.

Here’s what you need to know about the West Nile Virus.

First, the good news.  Chances are your children would be fine even if they were to get bitten by an infected mosquito.  A full 80% of people who contract the virus never experience any noticeable symptoms.  Unlike many other viruses, infants and children are not at greater risk of contracting West Nile.  In fact, West Nile Virus in babies is extremely rare. Most of this virus’ victims are adults.  And, it’s important to note that it is a non-contagious virus. You can only get it from the mosquito — not from another infected person.

What happens in the other 20% is very similar to what happens when you get the flu, including: fever, head and body aches, nausea, vomiting, swollen glands, and a skin rash on the trunk of the body.  Doctors refer to this mild reaction as “West Nile Fever.”

Now, the bad news.  In about 1 in 150 people infected, the story will not be so simple.  And, it will be worse for children, elderly and anyone with an autoimmune disease.  Symptoms of the severe neuro-invasive disease (also called West Nile meningitis, encephalitis or poliomyelitis) can include: high fever and headache along with neck stiffness, disorientation and stupor, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis.  These severe symptoms may last for several weeks, but, then, may have permanently damaging neurological effects as the virus actually passes into the brain.

If you have flu-like symptoms (or worse) and a mosquito bite, your doctor can test you for West Nile Virus through a blood test.  Although it takes an average of 8 days for it to show up on the test.  And, knowing that you have West Nile doesn’t really get you a whole lot…There is no cure for the virus other than time.  It can take a few weeks to recover even from the mild version.

I recently had the opportunity to interview the wife of a man from the Estates of Prairie Creek in Richardson who contracted West Nile while outdoors at dusk on Father’s Day.  His bites looked normal, but flu-like symptoms along with a rash and unstoppable headache sent them on a weeks-long journey to doctors, emergency rooms, and infectious disease specialists that included a diagnosis of viral meningitis and ended in a final diagnosis of West Nile. He is just now back to normal.

Pregnant? Then, be careful. The data is inconclusive as to wether a mom-to-be would pass on the virus to her fetus.  One mom, a decade ago, got the virus and her baby also tested positive for West Nile at birth and had a number of other physical problems. But, doctors were unable to, with any degree of certainty, attribute these issues to the virus.  Whereas several other pregnant women tested positive during pregnancy and had healthy and unaffected babies. Obviously, it’s best to take every possible precaution if you are expecting.  Similarly, I found that if you have the virus, it can be passed through breast milk.  So, keep that in mind nursing mommas.

Keeping  your family away from mosquitos should be a priority during this widespread outbreak! Here are some suggestions on that front:

1) Repel.  DEET is the ingredient most often recommended for an insect repellant to be deemed effective. But, do not use DEET on infants under 2 months of age and watch the concentration of DEET even for older children.  Studies conflict on this –10% or less is the safest concentration according to the Academy of Pediatrics, but up to 30% was deemed okay by the CDC.  Through my research I also discovered that DEET doesn’t really have any “magic” mosquito repelling powers it just makes repellent stronger and last longer.  Natural alternatives like citronella, soybean oil and other essential oil combinations (oil of lemon eucalyptus -not for kids under age 3) are safer from a toxic standpoint but may not be as powerful.  My favorite is Avon’s line of skin-so-soft bug repellants.  These are actually DEET free which means they are non-toxic, but seem to work. Don’t risk being outside without some sort of repellant during this West Nile outbreak!

2) Cover… Arms and legs of children playing outdoors. Yes, I know it’s 115 degrees, so be reasonable. Use that netting on your stroller (you wondered why it was there!).

3) Time it.  Don’t go out at dawn and dusk, this is when mosquitos are lurking. Damp shady areas and/or humid and cloudy days are peak times for getting bit.

4)  Get rid of the baby pool… water table, or the neglected watering can that’s full from rain and hasn’t been touched in months.  Any container–no matter what size–can turn into a mosquito love shack.  The little buggers love to lay eggs in things like include stagnant swimming pools (moving or filtered water keeps them away), water in loose fitting pool covers, bird baths, unscreened rain barrels, plastic toys, rimless tires, rain gutters and drains.

To stay informed on the West Nile Virus outbreak in Dallas, including the schedule of when spraying will happen in what areas, the number of cases, and county-by-county reports, goto the Dallas County HHS West Nile Page through this link.

Update as of August 7th at 11am:  The Dallas County Medical Society has just recommended aerial mosquito spraying for West Nile. This means spraying poison out of airplanes to control the mosquito population. This hasn’t been recommended since 1966.  Read the full story from WFAA here. 

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