By far, most infections are benign, Bilgrami said. About 80 percent of people infected with West Nile Virus have no symptoms at all. They do not even know they are infected. Another 20 percent of infected people have symptoms resembling a mild flu.
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"These people might get headaches, fevers, body pains," he said. "They might get swollen lymph glands. They might get a rash on their trunk — the chest and belly. And they may or may not seek medical attention. They might stay at home, because this infection goes away within a few days without any blood test, without any treatment."
Only about 1 person in 150 people infected with West Nile has serious complications, Bilgrami said. The virus can go to the brain or spinal cord and cause inflammation.
"If it causes inflammation of the covering of the brain, we call that meningitis. Sometimes it causes inflammation of the brain tissue itself, which we call encephalitis," he said. "Sometimes, very rarely, it causes inflammation of the spinal cord, which causes paralysis, just like polio."
Particularly susceptible to serious illness are older people and people with weakened immune systems, Bilgrami said.
"What we have seen from the literature is people who are older than 50 or people who have underlying immune problems, they are at risk for this disease," he said. "Younger people will come into that 99.3 percent of cases that are asymptomatic or they just have fever which goes away without treatment.
There is no vaccine against West Nile Virus, Bilgrami said, but researchers are working on it. But prevention is fairly simple: Avoid mosquitoes. Mosquitoes carry the virus from infected birds to humans.
"It's all about the mosquitoes. Wherever there are mosquitoes, there is disease," Bilgrami said. "So, to prevent the disease: No. 1, prevent the mosquito bites. Prevent them being around you at work and in the place where you live."
Bilgrami offered recommendations for reducing exposure to mosquitoes — see the sidebar below — but, basically, he urged local residents to keep things in perspective. Out of tens of thousands of mosquito bites annually in Washington County, only one case of West Nile Virus was reported to the county health department.
"(At worst,) this is a mild disease. More than 99 percent of people are fine. They get better without any treatment," he said. "But just because mosquitoes can transmit the virus, take precautions."
Reduce your exposure
Reduce exposure to West Nile Virus by reducing exposure to mosquitoes
West Nile Virus breeds in certain species of wild birds and is carried by mosquitoes to vulnerable mammals such as horses, cats, dogs, squirrels, chipmunks, domestic rabbits and humans.
The best ways to prevent West Nile infections, according to Dr. Mohanned Bilgrami of WillowWood Adult Medicine in Robinwood Medical Center, are to reduce the local mosquito population and to make it difficult for mosquitoes to get to bare skin.
- Check doors and windows for holes where the mosquitoes can get in.
- Eliminate or limit the amount of stagnant water at home and work. Frequently change water in bird baths and dog water bowls. Put mosquito larva-killing rings in rain barrels or low spots in gutters. Empty water from trash containers and potted plants.
- Avoid outdoor activities between dusk and dawn.
- When going outdoors, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts.
- Use insect repellents with DEET or pyrethrin on exposed skin.