Avoiding West Nile virus just takes common sense

Nashville is experiencing its toughest year fighting West Nile virus since 2008. Now that the virus has claimed the life of a local resident, it’s an appropriate time to get serious about avoiding mosquitoes, which could transmit the disease from birds to people. But it’s not the time to lose your head and barricade yourself inside your dorm room (especially if you have classes with me!).

It's pretty important to recognize the actual risk of getting this disease. Just because you get a mosquito bite doesn't mean you'll get the virus, and if you got the virus, it's most likely you'd never know it.  It’s pretty rare for the West Nile virus to give someone symptoms bad enough to send them to a hospital or doctor. Usually, at most you might feel a little run-down, maybe you would have some body aches or feel like you have a mild case of the flu. In very rare cases people who get the virus will get more severe symptoms like a high fever or terrible headache, very stiff joints or a body rash. It does seem to be the case that people over the age of about 50, and those with already compromised immune systems seem to be more likely to become ill from the virus. Just to be clear, you won't get the virus from another person, and it doesn't seem that mosquitoes will pass the virus from person to person. 

Because I'm a scientist, I have to tell give you a little information on the ecology of this disease. The virus lives in birds, mainly crows. One type of mosquito passes the virus around from bird to bird, increasing the virus load in the bird populations. By the end of summer, the virus load is heavy enough in the birds that other mosquitoes - those that feed on birds and mammals - will carry the virus from the bird populations into mammals, like people. Human cases of West Nile virus usually start showing up in the early fall. Usually, after the first hard frost, mosquitoes start dying and human cases slow down. In most places in the United States, winters are cold enough to kill most mosquitoes, so the next season of West Nile virus doesn't start up again until late spring when mosquitoes come out again.

As far as diseases go, West Nile is one you can do something about, to some degree. Get plenty of sleep, eat well, stay healthy and follow these basic tips to diminish your chance of being affected by West Nile virus:

  • Limit outside activity at dawn and dusk, the key times for mosquito activity.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants, especially at dawn and dusk.
  • Wear insect repellant on your skin and clothing that contains DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535.
  • Don’t panic if you are bitten by a mosquito. Though West Nile virus can affect people of all age groups, only about 1% of those getting the virus will get seriously ill.

Click here to see Dr. English talking West Nile virus on Channel 4

Click here to see Dr, English talking West Nile virus on Channel 17

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James English

James English

Dr. James English serves as Academic Director for the Institute for Sustainable Practice and Associa... [More]

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