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West Nile Virus: What is the risk, how can you decrease it?

by Col. Crescencio Torres & Lt. Col. Yolanda Geddie
6th Aerospace Medicine Squadron

It is difficult to strike a balance between the media hype and the actual health risks when it comes to West Nile Virus. However, residents of Hillsborough County and MacDill do have options available to reduce the risk to ourselves and our families of contracting West Nile Virus or any other mosquito-borne illnesses.

The West Nile Virus, first isolated in 1937, primarily afflicts birds. They contract the virus from the bite of an infected mosquito. Dead birds in an area may mean that West Nile Virus is circulating among the bird and mosquitoes populations in that region. Although birds, particularly crows and jays, infected with West Nile Virus can die or become ill, most survive. The public can play an important role in monitoring the presence of West Nile Virus by reporting dead birds to state and local health departments.

Humans also contract West Nile Virus through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Research indicates that only one percent of the mosquitoes in an endemic area are infected, and only one percent of people bitten by an infected mosquito will become infected. Most of these people will have little or no symptoms, although the virus may cause a mild inflammation of the brain, accompanied by fever, headache, body aches, vomiting, skin rash, and swollen lymph glands. Significant human illness or death is rare, occurring most often in the very young or elderly with suppressed immune systems.

Emergence of West Nile Virus

There have been no deaths from West Nile Virus reported this year in the state of Florida, and Hillsborough County has no documented human illness to date this year. However, there have been cases reported in neighboring counties, so it is known there is a source of infected mosquitoes in our neighboring area. The best protection against contracting the virus is to minimize the chance of being bitten by an infected mosquito. This is accomplished through control of the mosquito population and through personal protective measures.

Managing the mosquito threat:

The key to mosquito population control is management of the mosquito larva population. Mosquitoes require standing water to breed, so the treatment of existing bodies of water to decrease the number of mosquito larvae and the elimination of unnecessary standing water are methods of controlling the mosquito population. Surveillance is a fundamental step in control. Larval surveillance missions are flown weekly at MacDill in partnership with Hillsborough County's Entomology Management. Larvae occur in specific areas and can be controlled by modifying the habitat through drainage or by adding bacteria that kill the larvae to the water in the breeding sites. Measures individuals can take to eliminate mosquito breeding sites include:

  • Ensure that items such as pool covers, flowerpot saucers, toys and even pet bowls are emptied regularly.
  • Clean eave troughs regularly so that water does not accumulate.
  • Empty and clean bird baths twice weekly.
  • Cover or screen rain barrels, ensuring to seal around the downspout.
  • Aerate ornamental ponds and stock with fish that eat mosquito larvae.
  • Remove all debris from yards, including old tires.

Avoiding mosquito bites:

In addition to decreasing the mosquito population, individuals can protect themselves by decreasing their risk of being bitten by a mosquito by:

  • Applying insect repellent containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) when outdoors. For details on when and how to apply repellent refer to the manufacturer's instructions on the product label. See Using Insect Repellents Safely on the Environmental Protection Agency's web page, http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/citizens/insectrp.htm.
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothes and long pants treated with repellents containing permethrin or DEET, since mosquitoes may bite through thin clothing. Do not apply repellents containing permethrin directly to exposed skin. If you spray your clothing, there is no need to spray repellent containing DEET on the skin under clothing.
  • Staying indoors at dawn, dusk, and in the early evening, which are peak mosquito biting times.

Although the risk of having a severe case of West Nile Virus is very small, controlling the mosquito population and taking these simple steps to decrease the risk of being bitten by mosquitoes can decrease the risk of contracting this illness even more.

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