Dr. Mom: Prevention is best plan for West Nile

10/11/2012 12:00 AM

10/10/2012 1:17 PM

You've likely already heard about the astounding number of West Nile virus cases we're seeing this year. According to the most recent estimates by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 3,969 known cases with 163 deaths.

These are the highest numbers of cases and deaths the United States has seen since 2003. And while cases are expected to continue to rise through October, the CDC predicts that we have passed the mid-August peak of mosquito activity.

What most parents want to know is, "Should we really be worried about this?" and "What can we do to protect ourselves and our children?" The short answer is, you should be worried enough to take some extra precautions when out during peak mosquito activity hours at dawn and dusk. However, you need not freak out about every little suspicious insect bite your child endures.

Here's what you need to know.

West Nile Virus, as its name declares, is a viral infection. It's passed on to us humans via mosquitoes that have feasted on infected birds and is not contagious from one person to another through casual contact. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this virus and no vaccine is available.

Thankfully, 80 percent of people infected with West Nile virus develop few or no symptoms, leaving 20 percent who will develop mild flu-like symptoms in the form of fever, headache, joint pain, rash, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms typically resolve with a few weeks.

One in 150 people (less than 1 percent) will develop the severe, neuroinvasive form of West Nile virus causing neck stiffness, seizures and disorientation in addition to the flu-like symptoms described above. Of these cases of meningitis and/or encephalitis, 10 percent will die.

Individuals most at risk are people over the age of 50 and those with cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and those with other immunocompromised conditions.

The best way to prevent West Nile infection is to decrease the likelihood of getting bitten. Avoid going outdoors during dawn and dusk when possible.

When outdoors, dress in long sleeves and pants to minimize skin exposure.

Use some type of insect repellent (preferably with at least 10 percent DEET) on exposed areas. Eliminate any standing water in and around your yard, as these are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Make sure window and door screens do not have holes in them.

Many parents express concern regarding the use of DEET on their children. DEET is effective in warding off insects like mosquitoes but should be used with caution. Use sparingly and never allow children to apply it themselves to avoid getting into their eyes. Wash off before going to bed and don't use a combination sunscreen/DEET since DEET can become toxic if over-applied. Use a repellent that contains 10-30 percent DEET (with a maximum of 30 percent).

An alternative to DEET-containing repellents are available, and many parents report success with them. I personally like California Baby bug repellent and have found it to be effective.

The bottom line is that though we are seeing epidemic West Nile virus cases this year, the numbers are on our side when it comes down to risk of serious disease. Still, prevention matters and is the key to keeping these numbers down.

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