On Monday, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report saying that, in the United States, 2012 was the deadliest year on record for deaths attributed to the West Nile virus.
Texas led the nation, compromising 33 percent of all reported cases with 1,868 infections and 89 deaths. That was far above California, which had the second most reported cases at 479 and 20 deaths.
In the majority of West Nile virus cases, most people experience only minor symptoms such as fever and a mild headache. However, some people who become infected with the virus develop a life-threatening illness that includes inflammation of the brain.
Serious symptoms can include:
- High fever
- Severe headache
- Stiff neck
- Disorientation or confusion
- Stupor or coma
- Tremors or muscle jerking
- Lack of coordination
- Partial paralysis or sudden muscle weakness
Signs and symptoms of West Nile fever usually last a few days, but signs and symptoms of encephalitis or meningitis can linger for weeks, and certain neurological effects, such as muscle weakness, may be permanent.
If you or a family member experience any of these more severe symptoms see a physician immediately.
The CDC's Dr. Lyle Petersen says it's impossible to know what West Nile will do this summer. "It is very hard to predict," he said in a telephone interview with NBC News. "I can't tell you what the weather is going to be like this summer, for example." The virus is driven by weather; it's worse during hot, wet summers in temperate climates.
"What last summer's outbreak tells us is that West Nile is not going to go away," Petersen said. "Most places in the United States are at risk of having outbreaks."
Currently, there is no vaccine against the virus for people. Most infections occur in the warmer months when mosquitoes are active.
Adults over 50 are at the highest risk for serious infection, but if any family member is suspected of being infected with the virus he or she should be tested.
While children are typically at a much lower risk for infection (about 3 percent of cases reported) they are the most likely to be playing outside during the warmer months and should be protected against mosquito bites.
Some steps you can take to protect your children (and yourself) from mosquito bites are:
- Making sure to keep as much of their skin covered with clothing as possible, including a long sleeve shirt, long pants, socks, and a hat.
- Wearing light colored clothing, so as not to attract bugs.
- Avoiding using any scented soaps or other products on your children, since the fragrances can also attract insects.
- Using an insect repellent regularly. Commonly used insect repellents that can usually be safely used in children include those with less than 10% DEET, or others with citronella or soybean oil. New reports suggest that an insect repellent with 30% DEET is safe for kids too.
- Using window and door screens to prevent insects from getting inside your house.
- Empty standing water around your house where mosquitoes can breed.
- Avoid outdoor activities during peak mosquito biting times, from dusk (early evening) to dawn (early morning).
Parents shouldn't be so fearful of their child getting the West Nile Virus that they don't allow their children to play outside during the warm spring and summer months. However, taking extra precautions to protect your child from mosquito bites just makes good sense.
Vincent Iannelli, M.D.