How big of a threat is West Nile to the public at large?

And what can we do to protect ourselves?

August 22, 2012

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According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States is having the biggest outbreak of West Nile virus since 2004. While Texas is the hardest hit, Illinois has reported cases in 38 counties, compared to only 15 last year. 

In the Chicago area, two suburban public officials have come down with West Nile, including Lombard’s village president, who died over the weekend. On Tuesday, Evergreen Parks Mayor James Sexton revealed that he too had come down West Nile.

There's one comforting thing about the situation in Chicago: It's "Definitely not [as dire as in Dallas]," Illinois Director of Public Health Dr. LeMar Hasbrouck told Eight Forty-Eight's Tony Sarabia on Wednesday, referencing the 10 people who have died in that city and the 200 that have been infected this summer.

What's the cause? Like most things, scientists are attributing the infections to seasonal changes, because warmer temperatures speed the breeding process of mosquitos, who get West Nile from birds.

However, "It is an endemic infection, it is here to stay, it's just a matter of how we deal with it," says Dr. Hasbrouck. "I think it's probably going to be a cycical pattern, as with many infections." 

Hasbrouck says that 1 in 200 mosquitos have this virus. Most people are bitten but don't even know they're infected — West Nile just works its way out of their system. However, there is a 1 in 10,000 chance of being infected and having severe neurological symptoms. And there's seemingly not much push nation-wide for a vaccine.

Perhaps that's because some doctors like Hasbrouck don't consider West Nile "that huge of a threat." At least, not yet. But more and more communities are investing in mosquito abatement programs, like Glenview and Skokie, which have seen two people infected in the past few weeks.

"The message for the general public is be aware of mosquitos and take the necessary precautions," says Dr. Hasbrouck. "I think you've got to take a balanced approach and you've got to see if there is more protection needed."

Some tips from the Chicago Department of Public Health to prevent West Nile:

  • Use insect repellant containing DEET, Picaridin, or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus.
  • Consider limiting outdoor activity after dark (dusk to dawn), which is when Northern House Mosquito is most active.
  • When outside between dusk and dawn, wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing that includes long pants, long-sleeved shirts, socks and shoes.
  • Check to see that all screen on doors and windows are tight-fitting and free of holes and tears.
  • Encourage neighbors to exercise precautions.

And try to stamp down mosquito breeding by:

  • Draining and replacing water in birdbaths and children's backyard wading pools every four to five days
  • Properly disposing of old tires, jars, cans, pans, bottles, buckets and other unwanted containers that can hold standing water
  • Making sure that rain gutters, downspouts, swimming pools and pool covers are free of standing water
  • Keep grass and weeds cut short to eliminate hiding places for adult mosquitoes
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