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West Nile Virus: Serious Infection Can Strike Anyone

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mosquitoDr. Kristy Murray has been studying West Nile Virus for more than a decade, first with the Centers for Disease Control, then as an associate professor of Pediatrics in the section of Pediatric Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine. She is also a member of the National School of  Tropical Medicine.

Dr. Murray knows West Nile.

She says the common perception of the mosquito-borne virus is that it’s no big deal.  It’s something only the elderly and those with preexisting conditions which weaken their immune systems get.  It’s not something the young, strong, and healthy have to worry about.

Dr. Kristy Murray

Dr. Kristy Murray

Dr. Murray says none of that is true.

Often times we hear, ‘It’s only people who are older who are at high risk, or people who have other health issues,’ but we’re finding people who are young — we’ve had as young as one month of age — and even people in their 20s and 30s who are otherwise healthy, who end up with really severe disease.

It is true is that most healthy people who are infected with the virus never even know they have it, and others may just feel like they have the flu.  Still, others get very sick.  Their symptoms are severe.  They may develop encephalitis or meningitis, the symptoms of which can include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, seizures, or paralysis.

And this is the thing…

West Nile has been in Texas for about a decade, so doctors like Dr. Murray have been able to follow once-infected patients for several years.  This is what they’ve found.

Tires collecting standing water.

Tires collecting standing water.

  • 70 percent of those infected with West Nile Virus during the early years still haven’t returned to the level of wellness they experienced before they were infected.
  • About 40 percent of those who developed severe symptoms from their infections have been diagnosed with kidney disease between four and six years after they were infected.
  • For those who develop West Nile meningitis or encephalitis, neurological damage can be permanent.
  • About 10 percent of people who develop neurologic infection due to West Nile virus will die.

Murray says no matter how old you are or how healthy you are, if you become infected with West Nile Virus, it can develop into a prolonged illness that is devastating and disabling.

Research suggests there may be a genetic reason why some healthy people succumb to the very worst West Nile has to offer, but Dr. Murray says they still don’t know what the genetic weakness might be.  Therefore, there’s no way for you to know if you’re at greater risk of developing a serious disease.  So Murray says everyone should protect themselves from the possibility of infection.

How do you do that?  The Texas Department of State Health Services offers this advice:

  • TDSHS: Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an approved insect repellent against the type of mosquitoes that carry West Nile.

    TDSHS: Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an approved insect repellent against the type of mosquitoes that carry West Nile.

    Use an approved insect repellent every time you go outside. Approved repellents are those that contain DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Follow the instructions on the label.

  • Regularly drain standing water, including water that collects in empty cans, tires, buckets, clogged rain gutters and saucers under potted plants. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Use air conditioning or make sure there are screens on all doors and windows to keep mosquitoes from entering the home.

For more on West Nile Virus activity in Harris County, go here.

For info on West Nile in other Texas Counties, you can start here.

The CDC website has a ton of valuable information about the virus, as well as recommendations about how to prevent infection here.

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