Beyond the Bite: How to Fight the West Nile Virus

By Israel, Alyssa | E Magazine, November-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Bite: How to Fight the West Nile Virus


Israel, Alyssa, E Magazine


Susan Sheldon's husband thrashed wildly about the kitchen trying to kill the one mosquito that, he believed, bit him four times. "You have to keep the door closed, he growled as he finally managed to swat the insect in mid-air. Sheldon, who was worried about the West Nile virus, argued that her husband should have put up the screens.

The truth is that it's very unlikely that this particular mosquito was infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even in areas where mosquitoes do carry West Nile virus, only about one in 500 are carriers. If Sheldon's husband were actually infected, he probably would not even know it. Most people who do contract the disease experience very mild symptoms--or none at all.

Over the five- to 15-day incubation period, Sheldon would watch for high fever, disorientation, muscle weakness, headache of nausea. Only about one infected person in 150 becomes seriously ill with a central nervous system infection such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain). If a serious West Nile-related infection does occur, it is fatal in only eight percent of cases, mostly among seniors.

Unfortunately, for 4,156 people nationwide in 2002, West Nile was a serious proposition, and for 284 it was a killer. In 2003, West Nile spread far and wide. By September, 1,764 Americans had contracted West Nile, and 31 died.

West Nile virus has taken an even greater toll on a variety of animals. In 2002, the CDC reported more than 9,000 cases of West Nile virus-related illness among horses and more than 14,000 deaths among crows, blue jays and 92 other bird species. While scientists do not know the actual number of bird deaths, they are learning other things from the studies launched in response, in New York, where 80,000 dead birds were collected, it was found that more died from exposure to common lawn pesticides such as Diaznon and Dursban than from West Nile virus, according to the National Audubon Society.

Reducing Your Risk

Even though most people won't get sick from West Nile virus, we owe it to our families, neighbors, pets and wildlife to reduce the incidence of this mosquito-borne disease. It's not too early to begin thinking about next year's mosquito season.

One of the most effective, cheapest and environmentally benign ways to reduce the chance of infection is to eliminate mosquito-breeding grounds around your home. The West Nile virus has been found in 36 different varieties of mosquito, but the CDC still considers the Culex variety to be its primary vector. The Culex mosquito lays its eggs in murky, standing water such as in puddles, birdbaths and discarded tires.

Leaving standing water around your home may mean a new batch of adult mosquitoes emerging daily. Empty accumulated water from tire swings and outdoor toys. Drill holes in the bottom of outdoor recycling containers. Clean clogged roof gutters regularly. Turn over plastic children's pools and wheelbarrows, and change water in birdbaths every seven days. Keep swimming pools chlorinated (or use a natural alternative), and aerate ornamental pools or stock them with larva eating fish that are indigenous to your area. If you notice standing water on another person's property, you may report it to your local health department, which can order it removed.

Try treating very wet areas with the biological larvicide Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, or BTI, available in many hardware stores. According to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, BTI is proven to be effective and has low levels of toxicity.

If you own an ultraviolet bug zapper, you might as well throw it out. …

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