West Nile in West ATX – What to Do?

West Nile Virus in Austin, Texas?

Mosquito bites are all too familiar to those of us here in Texas. And other than the itching for a few days, they’re typically fairly benign.

Recently, we started seeing new mosquito-borne illnesses here in the US. First it was West Nile and then Zika.  West Nile had been around in the Eastern Hemisphere since the 1930s, but it only made it’s debut here in the US (in New York) in 1999. Scientists think the virus may have come from an infected bird that possibly made its way across the Atlantic on a ship (how sick is a bird that has to catch a boat to travel?). Then, in dramatic fashion, the virus slowly marched from the East coast to the West over the subsequent years popping up in cities further west each summer until it had been identified in all 48 lower states.

But what does West Nile Virus do, anyway?  Well, here’s an interesting thing:

Only 1 in 5 people infected with the West Nile virus even have symptoms.

That’s right.  You might have West Nile Virus right now and not even know it (deep breaths).  80% of people infected with the virus will fight it off, and be none the worse for wear. So why is this news?

Well, it turns out that West Nile Virus is dangerous to certain groups of people. For one, the elderly, or let’s just say those over 60. (Sorry, Mom – I don’t really consider you elderly. But let’s face it, the CDC does.)  Another at-risk group is anyone with a compromised immune system. This means patients with cancer, diabetes, immune deficiencies, and organ transplant patients.

What kind of symptoms will the 20% have? Are you looking at that rash on your arm right now thinking, “Is this West Nile?!”  Or maybe your daughter had a fever this morning. Great, she has West Nile? Probably not. And even if she did, she’ll probably fight it off like most of the viruses healthy kids get and fight off easily.

Symptoms of West Nile Virus

But back to the symptoms. In the few patients who get symptoms, it is what doctors call a “flu-like illness”.  Yes, that’s the best we doctors could come up with. Fever, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea and possibly a rash.  This is what it looks like, and it lasts for a few days. Not fun. But 99% of people will completely recover. It is nothing like the dreaded Ebola we read about, or even the seasonal flu that kills so many every year.  

About 1% of infections – and remember, this is likely in the immunocompromised group – will result in a very serious infection that doctors call meningoencephalitis. This is diagnosed with a spinal tap, and causes severe headache, disorientation, stroke-like symptoms, and high fever. Even the vast majority of these folks will survive the disease but may have long term side effects.  It’s serious stuff to be sure, but important to remember that it’s rare.

Reports streamed forth from news agencies in Austin yesterday of mosquitoes testing positive for the West Nile virus in Austin. To be clear, there have been no human cases in Austin this year. Wait check that. There have been no cases that we know about.  But remember, most of the people that get this, don’t even know they have it and fight it off without any problem.

So, it’s no cause for panic.

Just do what you normally do to defend against mosquitos. Look, you don’t like leaving the football game with 25 new itching bites all over you.  So use insect repellant!  

If you have standing water anywhere around your house, drain it.  Skeeters love standing water. That’s where they make babies. So dry up that water – from pots, dog dishes, whatever.

Just use common sense, don’t get bit up too much, and you and your loved ones should be fine.

PS – You know what people around Austin are testing positive for? The flu. And that’s no bueno, either – so get your flu shots!

PPS – We can come to your house and give your whole family flu shots in no time. And yes, we’re gentle.