West Nile Virus has shown up in Texas, and to hear it described somewhat breathlessly, you would think we were talking about Ebola, Hantavirus or the End of Days. It is the virus of the week and has caused a lot of commotion and more than a little fear.
West Nile Virus is a lesser known relative of Japanese Encephalitis, which sounds like a terrible disease, but really isn’t.
How do you get the West Nile disease? Only one way, get bit by a mosquito that has the virus. The West Nile virus mostly lives in birds. Some mosquitoes bite birds and pick up the virus that way. Who knew mosquitoes bite birds? Seems like a suicidal food choice. If one of these mosquitoes actually manages to catch and bite the infected bird, and survive the experience, he now can bite you. As you would expect there are not exactly swarms of infected mosquitoes.
Now if one such infected mosquito manages to find you, you now have West Nile Virus. But you can’t give it to your family and friends. They have to find their own infected mosquito if they want the virus. In West Nile infected humans, the virus level is low enough that a mosquito biting you won’t likely get infected. So you can‘t pass it on, even with a mosquito’s help.
But what if you do catch it? You have a very big chance of not even knowing it. 80% of people that get West Nile are asymptomatic. That is the kind of disease to get, beats all that suffering stuff.
20% of people actually get the short end of the virus, and feel like they have the flu (influenza). That can be pretty unpleasant: fevers, chills, sweats, headache and body aches, swollen glands and maybe a rash or some vomiting thrown in for good measure. You are going to spend a perfectly miserable 7 to 10 days, then you will be fine, and immune. The only thing that might make you feel better during that 7 to 10 days is knowing you don’t have the really bad kind.
The really bad kind is less that 1% of the infections. It infects your brain and that is never good. In the worst of the worst the encephalitis (brain infection) can cause coma or death. There has even been some Guillain-Barre (remember swine flu 1975 version) from West Nile Encephalitis. Once it gets to that stage you are in the ICU and we (as doctors) do everything we can, but there is no specific treatment. Still most people get over it.
Although there are a lot of West Nile Alarmist stories hitting the airwaves, the disease is pretty simple to avoid. Mosquitoes bite most actively around sundown. Stay away from the wood at that time. If you live in an area that has West Nile, consider some mosquito repellant (DEET) spray or clothing. It’s as easy as that.
Did you know it was the carbon dioxide in your breath that attracts the mosquitoes to you? Just thought you’d like to know.