ESCANABA - With the recent spike in West Nile Virus cases across areas of the United States and downstate Michigan, health officials are recommending precautions the public can take to reduce their risk of infection.
As of Friday, the Michigan Department of Community Health's website reported 95 human cases of West Nile Virus across 13 counties downstate including five deaths - two in Wayne County, one in the city of Detroit, and one each in Kent and Washtenaw counties. No cases have been reported in the Upper Peninsula.
Jennie Miller, communicable disease coordinator for Public Health, Delta & Menominee Counties, said West Nile Virus, a disease of birds, can cause illness to people if bitten by an infected mosquito that has fed on an infected bird.
The virus was first detected in Michigan residents in August 2002.
"Less than 1 percent of people who become infected with West Nile Virus will develop severe illness," explained Miller, as most infected people show no symptoms.
"An estimated 20 percent of people infected will develop mild flu-like symptoms which generally last a few days," she added.
These symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, and a body rash.
Approximately one in 150 people infected progress to the more severe infection called West Nile Virus neuro-invasive disease - the symptoms of which can last for several weeks and may have permanent neurological effects. Symptoms include high fever, headache, stiff neck, disorientation, stupor, tremors, seizures or convulsions, paralysis, muscle weakness, loss of consciousness, coma, and even death.
"The incubation period, or the time between the bite by an infected mosquito and the onset of clinical symptoms, ranges from three to 14 days," said Miller, who added West Nile viral illnesses have no specific treatment.
Since West Nile infections are caused by a virus, antibiotics are not an effective treatment and no anti-viral drugs have yielded successful results.
Those with the highest risk of developing severe illness are people over 50 years of age, the immunocompromised, or those with underlying health conditions.
Miller pointed out West Nile Virus is not transmitted from person to person and that no evidence suggests people can receive the virus from handling live or dead infected birds. However, people should avoid bare-handed contact when handling any dead animals and use gloves or double plastic bags to place a carcass in the garbage can.
What else can be done to lessen the chance of infection?
"There are no commercially available human vaccines for the prevention of West Nile Virus," said Miller. "Prevention of the virus centers around controlling exposure to mosquitos and avoiding mosquito bites."
This involves reducing time spent outdoors (especially at dusk and during mosquito season), wearing light-weight long sleeves and long pants when outdoors, applying insect repellent containing DEET when outside while following the manufacturer's instructions, and keeping windows and doors screened to keep mosquitos out.
"It is also important to drain standing water in yards because they are potential mosquito breeding sites," she said. Standing water from flower pot bases, pet bowls, clogged rain gutters, swimming pool covers, "kiddie" pools, and discarded buckets, barrels, cans, or tires, should all be emptied.
For additional information on West Nile Virus, contact Public Health at (906) 786-4111.