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West Nile virus 101 with UTHealth’s Richard Bradley, M.D.

Since West Nile virus first emerged in the United States in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported more than 30,000 cases.   infection of birds and is transmitted when a mosquito bites an infected bird and subsequently bites a human.

Richard Bradley, M.D., chief of the Division of Emergency and Disaster Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), answers questions about the virus’ current outbreak. Thus far in 2012, the CDC has reported more than 1,000 cases of West Nile virus, and Texas health officials have declared a public health emergency.

Q: How do I know if I have the West Nile virus?

A: Most people who become infected with West Nile virus don’t have major symptoms, and may only have a temporary fever. About one person out of every 150 who are infected develop a severe disease called West Nile encephalitis or West Nile meningitis. This is an inflammation of the brain or the covering of the brain. These symptoms include headache, high fever, stiff neck, mental confusion, muscle weakness, convulsions and coma.  The symptoms may last several weeks and nerve damage may be permanent.

Q: Who is at the greatest risk for getting West Nile virus?

A: Everyone can be at risk, but the greatest risk is in those who are over age 50, and particularly in those who have received a solid organ transplant, such as a kidney, lung or heart transplant.

Q: How is West Nile treated?

A: West Nile is a virus – there is no treatment.  Doctors can treat the symptoms, but West Nile can’t be cured. So, the most important thing is to prevent infection.

How can I prevent West Nile virus?

  • There is no vaccine, so the key is to prevent mosquito bites.
  • Prevention includes mosquito control programs and personal protection measures to reduce the likelihood of being bitten by infected mosquitoes.
  • Community spraying programs are also important. The chemicals used to do aerial spraying do not pose any threat to your health.
  • When you are outdoors, use insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient.  Look for a repellant with at least 20 percent DEET. This should give you protection for at least five hours.
  • DEET is safe for children 2 months of age and older.  If you have to take children under 2 months of age outdoors, a light coating of baby oil on their exposed skin may be helpful.
  • Mosquitoes can lay their eggs in very shallow standing water. To reduce the risk from diseases caused by mosquitoes, drain standing water and check around your home every week for water in buckets, cans, pool covers, stored tires and flower pots. 
  • Clean pet water bowls, bird baths and water fountains weekly. 
  • Make certain that your rain gutters aren’t clogged and make sure wells or stored water are covered. 
  • Mosquito control items that are designed to protect an area, such as sprays, candles or machines, should only be considered supplemental to products used on your skin.

Jade Waddy
Media Contact: 713-500-3030