West Nile Virus has hit the South, hard. Dallas County — Texas’ second most populated region and the center of the nation’s deadliest West Nile outbreak this year — announced last week that for the first time in 50 years, it will allow aerial spraying of insecticide to target the mosquito-borne illness.
The county also declared a public health emergency, with 89 cases of the most severe form of the illness — neuroinvasive West Nile — confirmed in the county, out of 214 such cases statewide so far. Fifteen deaths have been reported in Texas and eight are from Dallas County, according to the Texas Infectious Disease Control Unit. In total, Texas has seen 351 cases of West Nile virus, putting it on track to outpace the worst year on record: 2003, with 438 cases.
Five planes have been requested to spray the most affected areas of the county including northern Dallas, Highland Park and University Park, the Associated Press reported, pending approval from leaders in each jurisdiction. Spraying is controversial because it spreads chemicals so widely and because it’s not clear that it can stop West Nile, some say. But the caseload and deaths are alarmingly high, and the virus’ peak season is only just beginning. “This is a matter of extreme concern, and we’re going to follow the science and do what’s best for our people,” Clay Jenkins, a Dallas County judge and the county’s top elected official, told the AP.
Other southern states have hard hit by the illness too. For example, Louisiana has reported 68 cases and six deaths, while Mississippi reported 59 cases and one death, according to HealthDay. Through the end of July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received the most case reports since 2004, nearly 80% of them from Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, the CDC said.
Seasonal outbreaks often occur in local areas that can vary from year to year, the CDC noted, depending on factors like weather, heat, rain, the number of mosquitoes that spread the virus, bird populations that can maintain it, and human behavior. “It is not clear why we are seeing more activity than in recent years,” Dr. Marc Fischer, medical epidemiologist with CDC’s Arboviral Diseases Branch, said in a statement. “Regardless of the reasons for the increase, people should be aware of the West Nile virus activity in their area and take action to protect themselves and their family.”
Eight out of 10 people infected with West Nile virus will have no symptoms, but about 20% will develop fever, headache, body aches, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhea or rash, according to the CDC. Neurological illness from the virus is rare, with less than 1% developing encephalitis or meningitis — inflammation of the brain or surrounding tissues. About 10% of those who develop neurologic infections will die.
Currently, there are no vaccines to prevent West Nile and no specific medications to treat symptoms. People with mild symptoms usually recover on their own, even if symptoms last several weeks. Patients with more severe cases — symptoms can include high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, convulsions, muscle weakness, blindness, numbness and paralysis — often require hospitalization for proper care and pain medication. People older than 50 and those with certain medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and organ transplants are at higher risk for severe illness.
The best way to prevent West Nile virus disease is to avoid mosquito bites. The Texas Department of State Health Services is recommending that residents take action to reduce their exposure by:
- Using approved insect repellent during every outside outing and following label instructions. Approved repellents are those that contain DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus
- Regularly draining standing water, including water that has collected in empty cans, tires, buckets, clogged rain gutters and saucers under potted plants. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water
- Wearing long sleeves and pants at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active
- Using air conditioning or making sure all windows and doors have screens to keep mosquitoes out of homes
The CDC offers the same recommendations for Americans living in areas where mosquitoes are prevalent. Anyone who experiences West Nile symptoms shouldn’t hesitate to contact their health provider.