Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Western Encephalitis, and now West Nile Virus – what’s with all the new emerging diseases? It seems that every year there is some new disease that gains a foothold in places that is was never meant to be. Mosquito borne illnesses are nothing new, but the types of disease they are now carrying are. Trust me, there is no Nile river in Canada or the USA, but people have been getting infected by the disease that bears its name.

What is it?
West Nile Virus is a member of the flavivirus family of viruses. This means that West Nile Virus is a type of disease that is carried by arthropods (mosquitoes and ticks). Often, the transmission cycle begins with an infected animal (like a horse) being bitten by a mosquito. The mosquito then goes on to bite a human, thereby transferring the virus into the human’s bloodstream. Once inside, the virus attacks the nervous system (spinal cord, brain, etc.). Originally foreign to North America, according to the CDC the virus has now been found in mosquitoes that survived the winter in New York. This led to a large outbreak in 2000, and the virus has been growing and spreading every year since then. 

Symptoms
The virus reacts differently in different people. The stronger your immune system, the more likely you are to have no noticeable ill effects. The most common symptoms are: fever, headache, tiredness, aches and sometimes rash. However, even a healthy person can become ill for several weeks. There is also the very real chance you can die from the disease, or suffer a debilitating side effect, such as paralysis. The most vulnerable are the very young and old, and people who may have a weakened immune system as a result of cancer treatment or some other health condition. Those at high risk need to be extra cautious. 

Prevention
What the governments are doing… West Nile is here to stay, so forget any hopes that the next cold winter will wipe out the disease carrying mosquitoes. In North America, the mosquitoes are most prevalent during the late summer and earlier fall. However, this does not mean that you are safe during the spring and early summer. Most major North American cities are now employing a combination of larvicide spraying – which interrupts the life cycle of the newborn mosquito – and fogging with insecticides to control large adult population mosquito outbreaks, which normally occur when periods of rain are followed by warm summer weather. 

What you can do…
As an individual, the best thing you can do is to avoid being bitten in the first place. This means that you have two choices when you venture outdoors. First, you need to liberally apply mosquito repellant containing DEET. There are many brands of repellant, including ones that are natural, as opposed to chemicals. They all work with varying degrees of success, but DEET seems to be the only one that is ‘scientifically’ proven to ward off the little biters. However, you may want to experiment with different brands to see which works best for you. Even though it has never been proven scientifically, some people seem to get bitten more than others. Therefore, you may need to try different types of repellant out before you find the one that works best for you. Second, there are also many new and ‘fashionable’ types of mesh clothing and headgear on the market. If you are allergic to sprays, or are worried about slathering poison onto your skin every time you walk outside, then the mesh option might be for you. There is also clothing available that has bug repellant ‘built in’ to the mesh of the fabric. The clothing is available everywhere, but the outdoor/camping stores seem to have the best selection. 

Aside from preventing bites, you can also play a role in preventing mosquitoes from hatching in the first place. Mosquitoes need water to live, and they need water to breed. So if you have any standing water – water that is not moving – you need to dump it out. The most common sites for standing water are: building rooftops, eaves troughs or gutters, backyard kiddy pools, bird baths, tire swings (drill a hole in the bottom to let the water flow out), standing water on your lawn, water in ditches, old buckets, cans, bottles, ponds, and puddles on the street. Thousands of mosquitoes can hatch from a single pond, so it is in your best interest to remove the water. If you need more incentive, keep in mind that they normally do not stray to far from where they hatch. 

Vaccinate! Not yourself, but you can vaccinate your horses. The vaccine will prevent the horse from getting the disease. Subsequently, the horse will not act as a potential threat for spreading the disease to humans via the mosquito. 

Final Thoughts
Since there is no cure for West Nile Virus, everyone needs to be made aware of the real risks the disease poses. The disease will continue to spread and gain a foothold in every section of North America, so it has become a new reality for most of us city dwellers in North America. A chilling thought, given the fact that if mosquitoes occur in large enough numbers, not even DEET will prevent them from biting. 

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