Protecting Against West Nile Virus

The weather has been a mosquito’s dream lately in Pennsylvania. The rain has made us a great place for mosquitoes to find pools of stagnant water to live and have babies.

And along with mosquito season comes West Nile Virus. The state Department of Health recently issued a warning that West Nile Virus, WNV for short, has been detected in the pooled mosquito samples from seven counties: Beaver, Berks, Bucks, Delaware, Erie, Franklin and Philadelphia. “This indicates that WNV has begun to circulate in Pennsylvania,” the Department of Health said. “Risk of human WNV infection is likely to remain elevated over the next several months.”

What is West Nile Virus?

“In our state, West Nile Virus is the most commonly-reported and locally-acquired virus transmitted to humans by the bite of a bug, in this case, the mosquito,” Sue Stiner, MSN, RN, CIC, Inpatient Dialysis, and Infection Prevention and Control director at Penn Highlands DuBois, said. “We usually see it during the months of July through September, but the risk continues until the first hard frost. It is common throughout the United States, as well, not just here.”

In most people, being bit by a mosquito carrying the virus won’t cause any symptoms to appear. “That is true for about 80 percent of all people who get mosquito bites,” Rhonda Chilson, RN, director of Quality Assessment and Infection Control at Penn Highlands Elk, said. “It’s the 20 percent that result in illness that is concerning.”

In those who have reactions, most will develop a fever along with headaches, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or a rash. This is called “West Nile fever” usually when diagnosed.

Of that 20 percent, less than 1 percent, about one in 150 people, will develop a serious illness affected their central nervous system, such as inflammation of the brain or the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, known as encephalitis and meningitis, respectively.

The severe symptoms of encephalitis and meningitis can include high fever, headache, stiff neck, disorientation, tremors, convulsions, vison loss, numbness, paralysis and even coma.

“Severe illness can occur in people of any age, but the risk for those age 60 and over is greater,” Beth Keth, RN, BSN, Organizational Performance Improvement and Patient Safety Officer of Penn Highlands Brookville, said. “This can also affect people with medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and those who received organ transplants…Recovery can take weeks to months, and some damage can be permanent.”

During the 2018 WNV season, Pennsylvania reported 130 cases, the most WNV cases in over a decade.

Depending upon the severity of the symptoms, patients can be treated by their family physician or at a walk-in clinic, but some may need to be hospitalized.

“There is no vaccine for WNV. The best thing to do is prevent transmission by protecting yourself and your family from mosquito bites.” said Diane Bengtson, RN-BC, MS, CCHC, Director of Quality and Patient Safety, Penn Highlands Clearfield.

Mosquitos carrying the WVN are more likely to bite in the evening until dawn. If you are going outside, long-sleeve shirts and pants are recommended, but that’s not always easy on a 90 degree day.

Use insect repellents approved by the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, that are safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women. These include DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol and 2-undecanone following the directions closely.

Do not use insect repellent on babies under age two months or oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol on children under age three. Cover strollers and carriers with mosquito netting.

But to really help yourself, take steps to control the mosquito population where you live. Use screens on doors and windows – and repair holes in them. Once a week, empty and scrub items that hold water, such as bird baths, toys or decorations. Cover others, such as planters, pools or trash cans, and remove old tires, cans, buckets, pots, and similar items that can trap rainwater.

Limit puddles and keep potted plants well drained. If kids’ pools and wheelbarrows are not in use, turn them upside down.

As always, see a healthcare provider if you have questions about a bite or if you are not feeling well. Lab tests may be required to determine if a person is infected and WNV may not show up in a test for eight days, but some treatments can begin before results come back based on symptoms. The faster care is given, the shorter ailments may last.