Does the media have you up in arms about the latest West Nile virus epidemic? Well the first thing you need to know is that panic, is not the answer. For most people who get the the disease they never knew they had it, and for the few that do know they don’t die. Though a small fraction that contract the virus die, that risk group’s identity has been identified as elderly. Therefore, it is that group that should receive the most attention and emphasis. We simply need to put and information campaign together that focuses on reaching the elderly so that they will know how to avoid getting bit by a mosquito. So when this years West Nile virus season is over, nothing will change unless someone comes up with an immunization shot and that doesn’t seem likely.
West Nile Virus can be a serious and unfortunately, sometimes deadly infection. However, the majority of people who do get WNV (80 percent) will never really “know” they were infected, while 20 percent of those who contract the virus will have a fever, headache, body aches, stomach aches, a rash and fatigue. But, as with many other viral illnesses, the symptoms will typically be treatable with over-the-counter medication to control fever and body aches (acetaminophen or ibuprofen), fluids for hydration and lots of rest.
Acute West Nile Virus symptoms last 5 to 7 days. Many children with WNV never really look very sick (remember swine flu?), and therefore there’s no need or benefit in testing for the virus. By the time test results are back, the child is usually be long recovered and back to his/her normal activities.
That being said, individuals (usually those over 50) who become more symptomatic (about 1 in 150) may develop changes in sensorium, seizures, neurological and respiratory problems and will require hospitalization and often intensive care. In these cases, it is important to test for West Nile Virus. These patients are being tested to provide the best treatment for the illness, as well as for following the epidemiology of the disease. Again, care is supportive as this is a virus, and antibiotics will not treat viral infections.
These days, many of my patients and their parents are “afraid” to go outside. One mother told me she was going to “leave the state,” but West Nile Virus has been reported in 47 states to date.
Another concerned mother said she’d heard WNV was contagious and refused to let her children go to a friend’s house because they were sick. West Nile Virus is not contagious, and keep in mind that more people die in car accidents each day than from WNV.
Kids need to get fresh air, walk to school and spend time outdoors. But be smart and be sure they use bug spray, and wear long sleeves/pants when possible. They should avoid wearing brightly-colored clothes or perfumes and avoid being outside at dawn and dusk to limit mosquito exposure. Drain any areas of standing water near your home and encourage neighbors to do the same. The West Nile Virus season is long and will extend several more weeks.
Remember, bug spray should NOT be re-applied every 1 to 2 hours like sunscreen, but may be used several times throughout the day. When used appropriately, insect repellents containing DEET are safe in children and will help prevent mosquito bites. Use higher concentrations of DEET for longer exposures.
My advice? Be mosquito smart, informed, not alarmed and remember, panic is not the answer.