Since 2002, 56 cases of West Nile virus have been confirmed in La Plata county. As Public Health, our role is to investigate all laboratory reported cases to determine severity of illness, track number of cases, determine location of exposure and communicate to the public how to best protect themselves and their families. Given the level of virus activity in the San Juan Basin this year, San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) felt it important to share some details and prevention information on West Nile virus, which can be a fatal disease. Greater understanding of diseases that exist in our region can lead to better prevention of these diseases and healthier communities.

West Nile virus is spread to humans by the bite of a mosquito which has fed on an infected bird. Roughly 8 out of every 10 people infected with West Nile virus do not experience any symptoms. People who do develop symptoms of the disease will experience a fever with other symptoms that may include headache, body aches, joint pain, vomiting, and rash. Although most people with West Nile virus will recover, it may take weeks or months, with lingering symptoms of fatigue and weakness. One medical study found that over half of people with West Nile disease still experienced symptoms more than a year after diagnosis

Approximately 1 in 150 people infected with West Nile virus will develop severe symptoms that can result in encephalitis (swelling of the brain), and meningitis (swelling of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord.) People who develop this severe form of disease are at risk of death or life long medical complications. Other more severe symptoms people may experience may include neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis. If you or a family member develop symptoms of West Nile virus, contact your doctor who can test you for the disease.

People of any age can contract West Nile virus; however, people over 60 years of age are at higher risk of developing severe complications that may be life threatening. People with certain medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and people who have received organ transplants, are also at greater risk.

There is no vaccine to prevent West Nile virus in people, nor is there a cure for the disease. Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to reduce fever and relieve some symptoms, but in severe cases, patients who need to be hospitalized may need intravenous fluids, pain medication, and nursing care.

Although West Nile virus disease can have fatal results, prevention is simple and low-cost. The best way to avoid infection from West Nile virus is to prevent mosquito bites. SJBPH reminds residents to use the 4 Ds to protect against mosquito bites:

  • Use insect repellent containing
  • Drain standing water around your house.
  • Be especially careful when doing outdoor activities at dusk and dawn, when the mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus are most active.
  • Dress in long sleeves and pants where mosquitoes are active.

While human cases of West Nile virus are rare in our area, every case is at risk of severe complications including death. There has recently been an increase in both the number of mosquito pools testing positive for the virus as well as laboratory reports of human infection. The risk of catching West Nile virus will exist in our area until there has been a hard freeze to eliminate the mosquito population.

SJBPH works to protect human and environmental health in the communities we serve and increasing understanding and prevention of things that make us sick is an important part of these efforts. For more information contact SJBPH at www.sjbpublichealth.org.

Claire Ninde is the Director of Communications at San Juan Basin Public Health.