West Nile affects different people in different ways

Mosquito(Flickr Commons)
Published: Aug. 26, 2018 at 10:13 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 26, 2018 at 10:14 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - West Nile virus can cause paralysis, even death. But most people don’t even know they have it.

With Louisiana leading the nation in West Nile cases, and with more mosquitoes testing positive in New Orleans just days ago, doctors say more people are likely carrying the infection than even they realize.

“This is a heavy transmission West Nile year,” said Dr. Dawn Wesson with Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “This is the first half of it, and we’re already twice as many cases as last year.”

“And more than than half of the cases...have been those neuroinvasive complications,” added Professor of Infectious Disease at LSU Health Sciences Dr. Fred Lopez.

Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals reports two more people tested positive for the infection this week.

“Everybody is potentially susceptible,” Wesson said.

But not everyone reacts the same way.

“Probably about 80 percent of people, in fact, have no idea they’ve ever been infected,” said Lopez, who estimates between 100 to 200,000 Louisianans have or have had the virus - but with no symptoms. He says another 20 percent get West Nile fever and may feel like they have the flu.

“We really only see those most severe presentations of these infections, so we are really just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” explained Lopez.

Most often that’s the most dangerous form of West Nile - the neuroinvasive kind. Dr. Lopez says 10 percent of those who acquire it can be left with permanent complications. One in 10 will die. He says it can cause swelling of the brain and the spinal cord, seizures, paralysis and more.

“But that’s about one in every 150 people who get infected, and it’s typically in people who are older than 50 to 65 years of age or whose immune systems are compromised,” said Lopez.

“Even though older individuals tend to be more likely to have the severe disease if they get sick from West Nile Virus, we already have a young child that had the severe, neuroinvasive disease,” Wesson explained.

In fact, Dr. Lopez says Louisiana leads the country in most serious cases of West Nile. Two people here have died from it.

“It’s likely due to some of the early drought conditions we had this year, earlier this summer,” said Dr. Wesson. “That means the mosquitoes get more concentrated. Birds also need water so they come to those areas where there are mosquitoes. You get a concentration of birds and mosquitoes and that’s where you start getting that amplification of West Nile.”

Yet experts say Louisiana will likely fall from first place as the season progresses.

“Our transmission season starts early relative to some of these other states, and we go on relatively long. But I think there are probably some other states that are going to catch up,” Wesson said.

Meanwhile, doctors urge locals to take precautions.

“If you don’t get bitten, you can’t acquire this viral infection,” Lopez said.

One upside: If you acquire the asymptomatic version of West Nile virus, you can’t get West Nile fever or the neuroinvasive kind. You’re immune from getting it again.

Below is a list the City of New Orleans compiled detailing ways you can protect yourself and your property from mosquitoes. Keep in mind, epidemiologists say mosquitoes carrying West Nile are active between dusk and dawn.

Protecting Yourself

• Limit outdoor activities between dusk and dawn.

• Use air-conditioning and make sure window and door screens do not have holes to prevent mosquitoes from getting inside.

• If outside for long periods of time, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.

• Use insect repellents containing EPA-registered active ingredients including DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon-eucalyptus.

• When using insect repellent, always follow the recommendations on the product label.

• Click here for more information on protecting yourself from West Nile virus

Protecting Your Home

• Eliminate standing water around your home, where mosquitoes breed.

• Remove trash and clutter, and dispose of discarded tires and containers that can hold water. Turn over wading pools, buckets, trash cans, children’s toys or anything that could collect water.

• Change water weekly in containers that cannot be removed, such as pet dishes or bird baths. Scrub the side of the containers with soap and a sponge to remove any eggs

• Rain barrels and other water collection devices must be screened, and collected water should be used within one week.

• Aerate ornamental pools, fountains and sugar kettles, or stock them with fish.

• Report illegal dumping, water leaks and unattended swimming pools by calling 311.

• Call 311 or email mosquitocontrol@nola.gov to report mosquito problems.

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