It's hard to believe that summer is over. Even though the leaves are turning color, and crisp Friday evenings are now spent watching high school football games, the threat of West Nile virus still looms. In fact, the number of cases of West Nile fever in Ohio and Indiana just peaked recently, with Allen County in Indiana having the largest number of cases in the region. Unfortunately, the latest data shows that the number of infections and deaths from West Nile continued to rise natonwide over the past week, making 2012 the worst year in nearly a decade.
The virus has been present in North America since 1999, but this year has seen a higher-than-typical number of cases, perhaps related to the unusual weather. Indiana and Ohio are seeing 4-5 times the number of infections so far this year, as compared to 2011, and the count will likely continue to rise until the first hard frost of the Fall.
Symptoms of West Nile infection include fever, rash, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and muscle aches. More serious infections involve the central nervous system, leading to confusion, stiff neck, headache, weakness or paralysis, and even coma or death. Fortunately, the vast majority of people who are infected have no symptoms at all. Those who do feel sick typically have a mild illness that goes away on its own in a few days. Very few infected people (only 1 in 150, according to the Centers for Disease Control) develop the more serious or even life-threatening infection. Nonetheless, it would be wise to consult your primary care provider if you develop symptoms.
Because it is a viral infection, there is no specific treatment for West Nile illness. Medical treatment is "supportive," meaning that efforts are aimed at preventing complications and treating associated fever or dehydration, for example.
Since it cannot be treated, it is important to try to prevent being infected. West Nile virus is spread from birds to mosquitoes, and from mosquitoes to humans. The best prevention is to avoid mosquito bites by wearing long sleeves and pants, using mosquito repellent containing DEET, and eliminating mosquito reservoirs (like standing water). You should also avoid picking up dead birds with bare hands. This infection does not appear to spread from one person to another.
Before long, freezing temperatures will bring an end to this year's West Nile season. In the meantime, protect yourself from those pesky mosquitoes and the dangerous virus they may carry!