Doctor offers tips for West Nile virus protection

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June 11, 2015 8:15 AM

With summer here, people get to enjoy all the outdoor activities they look forward to during the long, cold winters. Swimming, biking and camping to name a few. But with the warm weather comes everyone’s most hated vampiric-like pest: the mosquito.

Besides the obvious reasons people hold contempt toward the buzzing nuisance - their itchy bite comes to mind - there are some cases where they can leave those bitten with something much worse.

The West Nile virus (WNV), which Dr. Peter Buck, senior public health epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency of Canada, says is typically transmitted by infected mosquitoes to humans will in some instances make people sick.

“For every 100 infections there will be approximately 70 to 80 per cent that will have no symptoms at all and won’t feel sick,” said Buck. “Then of the remaining 20 to 30 per cent, some of those individuals will develop mild symptoms that could include fever, headaches, body aches, mild rash and perhaps swollen lymph glands.”

Buck then says a very small percentage of people, less than one per cent of all cases, can develop more severe symptoms. These include a rapid onset of intense headaches, high fever, stiff neck, nausea and difficulty swallowing, vomiting, drowsiness, confusion and disorientation. These severe cases can then progress to loss of consciousness, lack of co-ordination, muscle weakness and even paralysis.

These particular patients can experience the symptoms for months to years after the initial illness. Buck says it’s important to note that certain people are more vulnerable to West Nile virus than others, such as people over 60 years of age, those with underlying health conditions and those with weaker immune systems.

There are no specific treatments or vaccines for WNV and people in that small percentage who get severe symptoms may never fully recover. Any existing treatments are what Buck calls “supportive,” which may include nursing care, IV fluids, respiratory support and measures to prevent secondary infections.

“Generally speaking, the risk is low across the country, so know where the risk is and know when it’s occurring and take steps to protect yourself,” he said.

There are several steps he recommends, the first one being awareness. Knowing if WNV is active in your area is important and in most cases this information will be available on local public health websites. Because areas that are impacted by WNV vary greatly from year to year across the country and even province to province, it’s important to check often.

Once you have that information the next thing to do is take preventative measures to protect yourself.

One of them is using insect repellants and Buck recommends those that contain DEET or Icaridan. Wearing light coloured clothing, preferably long sleeves and pants to cover exposed skin, is also recommended.

Then there are things you can do on your property to ward of potentially infected mosquitoes as well.

“Ensure that you have screens on your windows and doors and also ensure that they are in good repair. (Then) get out and you make sure that there isn’t standing water collecting in tires and toys, in whatever little containers that could collect water. Tip them over, empty the water out and if it’s something you want water in like a bird bath, tip the water out and replace it.”

The main thing here is getting rid of any nearby stagnant water because that’s where mosquitoes like to lay their eggs. Buck says all of these combined can reduce the likelihood of getting bit altogether, let alone getting bit by an infected bug.

But again, in the majority of West Nile cases, the body will fight off the infection without the host ever knowing they were infected. Only a small percentage will get mild symptoms, but for the potentially severe cases, an ounce of prevention may be best as there is no cure.

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