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West Nile Virus Facts

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Every time you turn on the news, you hear of another victim of the West Nile Virus.

Is this a cause for concern? Is the virus spreading rampantly, an impending danger to you or your family? Or is it just media hype?

Here are the facts.

What is the West Nile Virus? A virus is a ultramicroscopic infectious agent (a.k.a. "a bug") that replicates itself within the cells of a living host. West Nile is a virus that causes flu-like symptoms in humans, and can lead to a form of encephalitis (swelling of the brain) in rare cases.

How does a person get the West Nile Virus? From mosquito bites. Mosquitoes bite animals (particularly birds) that are carriers of the virus, thus becoming carriers themselves. When the infected mosquito bites a person, its saliva can be injected into the blood stream, introducing the virus into the person's system. This is the only known method of becoming infected with the West Nile virus. To date, there have been no reported cases of person-to-person, or animal-to-person infection through casual contact. However, it has recently been confirmed that the West Nile Virus was contracted by three people who received organ transplants from an infected donor. Investigators are currently looking into the possibilities of the West Nile Virus being spread through blood and organs in medical procedures. Currently, the risk of getting the West Nile Virus during medical procedures is minimal.

What are the chances of dying from West Nile Virus? Very low. Even in areas that have had confirmed cases of West Nile Virus in animals and birds, there are few insects among the mosquito population that are carriers of the virus. Among those people who are unfortunate enough to get bitten by an infected mosquito, less than 1 percent will develop a serious illness. Many people get infected and have no symptoms whatsoever. Of those who do get sick from the virus, less than 15 percent die. Most deaths have been among elderly victims who contracted the virus.

Is there a vaccine for West Nile Virus? No. Nor is there a specific treatment to combat the virus. However, once person becomes infected, their body will develop an immunity against future infections.

What are the symptoms associated with West Nile Virus? Most people who contract the virus exhibit no symptoms. Some will have flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches, and body aches. Also, swollen lymph nodes or a mild rash could be a sign of West Nile Virus infection. The most serious illness caused by the virus is West Nile Encephalitis. Symptoms of this condition may include the rapid onset of severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, confusion, loss of consciousness (coma), and muscle weakness. This is a very rare condition, but if contracted it may lead to permanent brain damage or death.

Do I need to take special precautions? Just use common sense when enjoying the outdoors. Try to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Wear long sleeves and pants if it is tolerable. Use a good insect repellant (most of those on the market are good). Try to keep your yard free from standing water, which makes for a good mosquito breeding ground. If you develop flu-like symptoms (or any other sickness), go to the doctor.

The West Nile Virus is definitely an issue that our health care professionals need to address. However, there is little reason to deviate from your normal enjoyment of the outdoors for fear of being infected.