Friday, August 17, 2012

What is West Nile Virus? How Can You Avoid It?

Filling my gas tank at the local Speedway, I got caught up watching the news over my pump. The anchor was talking about West Nile Virus. I was so caught up watching  that I accidentally spilled some gasoline on my shoe.

Like this squinting seal, I was skeptical.
"West Nile? That's sooo 90s!" said my inner diva. But like most stories on the news, the problem persists even after the coverage stops. West Nile disease didn't go away just because the cameras stopped rolling. And this year it's hitting particularly hard.

But what the heck is it? How do we get it? How do we avoid it? And what are we doing to stop it?

West Nile Virus

Chances are, if you've heard about West Nile, you've heard talk about dead birds and mosquitoes. But what does that have to do with humans?

West Nile is an avian disease, meaning it starts in birds. It's called West Nile because in 1937 it was isolated in Uganda. Birds and mosquitoes are what we call "vectors" because they act as bridges for the virus to infect humans. This is why there's often panic about "dead birds" on the news.

"Eh? Bird disease? Speak up, sonny, you're not making much sense."
Actually, avian diseases aren't rare at all. Swine Flu was another example of an avian disease; it jumped from pigs to birds to humans. Influenza is also an example of Avian disease. Because birds migrate, they travel all across the globe, giving the viruses they carry ample time to mutate and change. We can never cure influenza because it's different every year!

Symptoms of West Nile

Once infected, the disease takes anywhere between two and fourteen days to incubate. When the disease takes hold:
  • 80% of cases will show no symptoms. The disease remains contagious, but not through simple touching or kissing. As with all diseases, contact with infected blood or fluid can spread the disease from human to human. Sexual contact has not been shown to spread the disease.
  • Nearly 20% will develop West Nile Fever, suffering from headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, body aches and a possible rash. 
  • Less than 1% will develop deadly symptoms of the "neuroinvasive" type - the virus will attack the nervous system, resulting in high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, vision loss, tremors, seizures, coma, muscle weakness and paralysis.
Symptoms should only last for a few days to a week. But symptoms of the neuroinvasive type could cause long-lasting or permanent damage.

What's Being Done

To avoid West Nile Virus, we are encouraged by the CDC to wear bug repellant, avoid dead birds, and remove sources of standing water by our homes. Standing water, or still pools of water, are where mosquitoes lay eggs.

So you won't find any mosquitos at the wave pool of your local water park.

In Texas, where 10 people have died from West Nile and 230 others have been infected, the local government have ordered an aerial pesticide raid on the mosquitoes. The plan is to douse 49,000 acres of Dallas with pesticide at about an eighth an ounce of pesticide per acre. That makes for a total of over 2,000 gallons of anti-bug juice.

When I heard about this, I panicked. After reading the book Silent Spring and learning about how reckless spraying of DDT (another pesticide) in the 60s caused the death of almost all wildlife where sprayed, increased cancer rates in humans, and leeched into the groundwater, I have not been a big fan of pesticides. What they plan to spray in Texas is called a "pyrethroid," a synthetic chemical similar to the make-up of the chrysanthemum plant. The chemical attacks the bug's nervous system, causing paralysis and death.

The EPA says that pyrethroids are preferred over organophosphate pesticides (like DDT) because organophosphates are toxic to mammals and birds as well as insects. But even though they're preferred, they aren't perfectly safe. They're okay around humans and pets, but pyrethroids can accumulate in the soil and in the water, killing subterranean and aquatic creatures.

For more information about West Nile, check out the CDC website.

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