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West Nile virus rare, mosquitoes not

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Young, healthy and physically fit, Brad Harris never imagined his late-summer cold was actually a side effect of a mosquito bite. Two years later, Harris continues to take vitamins to boost his immune system, which has been altered by the West Nile virus.

Older people more susceptible

At 27, Harris' age played a role in his recovery. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people over 50 are more likely to develop serious symptoms of the virus.

Mosquitoes are vectors of WNV, and birds are carriers. The mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. Infected mosquitoes then transmit the virus to humans through their bites.

"Dead birds, particularly crows, are still indicators of WNV," said Elmer Gray, an entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In the past, local health departments encouraged people to bring in bird samples to help track the virus. However, people's interest waned as WNV cases declined, so they brought fewer birds for testing. Now, you can just call the health department to report a potentially infected bird.

WNV detected in Georgia

Mosquitoes carrying the virus have been found recently in areas of Atlanta and Savannah where monitoring programs are in place, Gray said.

Back in Griffin, Harris' co-workers warned him about the large number of mosquitoes in the company parking lot. They didn't know to warn him about West Nile virus.

"Apparently, (the mosquitoes) breed in the retention pond," Harris said. "We're constantly killing mosquitoes right and left at work. We also have mosquitoes in our yard, so I don't know where I was when I was bitten."

Symptoms vary

At first, Harris began to feel sluggish and run a nighttime fever. His symptoms soon worsened. "My family and I went out to dinner, and my wife literally had to wake me up," he said. "I fell asleep in the restaurant."

The next day, Harris' doctor drew blood and began treating him for a possible spider or tick bite. A week later, blood tests revealed WNV in his bloodstream.

It took a year for Harris to feel back to normal, but he will never truly be the same. His blood now contains WNV antibodies that prevent him from being a blood donor.

Most never know

Harris' experience is a rare one. About one in 150 people infected with West Nile virus will develop severe illness. Four out of five people, or 80 percent, will show no symptoms at all.

According to the CDC, human cases of WNV are rare in Georgia, with just 31 cases reported over the past three years. Of those, three were fatalities.

Although your chances of contracting the virus are very low, you can reduce them further by reducing the number of mosquitoes that can bite you. And now's the time to do it.

High time for 'skeeters'

Gray says the peak period for increased mosquito populations is Aug. 15 through Sept. 15.

"Georgia's dry conditions have helped keep the mosquito populations low across the state," he said. "But recent scattered rains have provided them with the habitats they need to thrive and multiply."

Gray recommends scouting your property for possible mosquito breeding grounds.

"People need to be vigilant at removing standing water," he said. "Check your gutters, boats and any containers that could hold water. Mosquitoes love used tires."

You can reduce your chances of being bitten, too, by wearing light-colored clothing and applying insect repellant when you're outdoors.

"The standard repellants containing DEET work well," Gray said. "Lemon oils and eucalyptus products are new, effective choices but haven't been studied intensively and aren't approved for children under 3."

Harris' and his wife Nicole have become parents since his experience with West Nile virus. "My wife puts a ton of repellant on our son," Harris said. "She wants me to, but I usually don't."

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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