West Nile Virus in Idaho poses annual health threat

West Nile Virus in Idaho poses annual health threat

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A buzz in the ear. A sharp pinch on the skin. Then, an unassuming little bump that itches like hell.

This is the calling card of one of the peskiest of pests: the mosquito. For much of the year, this entomological irritation bears an added risk.

“Anywhere from May to November, as long as mosquitoes are active, there is a potential that you can be bitten by a mosquito with West Nile Virus,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, a public relations officer for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

West Nile Virus is a viral infection most commonly transmitted to humans and animals by mosquitoes. The season for West Nile Virus in Idaho typically peaks around July and August.

Boise State Health Services handles several West Nile Virus cases each year.

“Sometimes in the summer we have patients who come in simply not feeling very well. Oftentimes, there aren’t any distinct symptoms to hang our hat on,” said Dr. Vincent Serio, director of University Health Services.

Part of what makes West Nile Virus such a difficult itch to scratch is that the first symptoms of the disease are indistinguishable from those of other viral illnesses, like influenza.

The mild form of the disease, West Nile fever, is characterized by fever, muscle aches, headaches and malaise, or a general feeling of weakness and discomfort.

The majority of people who become infected with West Nile Virus never experience any symptoms whatsoever and instead develop natural immunity to the virus, much like a vaccine.

According to the Center for Disease Control, only 1 in 5 infected individuals will develop symptoms. The feeble and elderly are most at risk of developing a West Nile-related illness.

“For young and healthy students, the risk of the illness is nearly zero,” Serio said.

Less than 1 percent of people infected with West Nile Virus will develop a severe neurological disease which affects the brain and spinal cord. According to Serio, this disease occurs in three main categories: encephalitis, meningitis and flaccid paralysis, which is clinically similar to polio.

Most people fully recover from the neuro-invasive illness, but in some cases it can result in permanent neurological deficits or even death.

In 2006, the state of Idaho led the nation in both West Nile Virus infections and deaths. According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, there were 996 reported cases of West Nile Virus in 2006 and 23 West Nile Virus-related deaths.

There have not yet been any reported human cases of West Nile Virus in 2014.

There is no vaccine or treatment for West Nile Virus disease at this time. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare devotes the bulk of its resources to research and prevention efforts, including mosquito abatement programs and surveillance.

“Our main concern is making sure people know how to avoid mosquitoes as much as possible, including to wear long sleeve shirts and pants if you’re going to be outside for extended period of time,” said Forbing-Orr. “We also recommend wearing DEET or another EDA-approved insect repellant to keep mosquitoes away.”

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