Health & Medicine

California’s first West Nile death this year puts health officials on alert

In a reminder of the potentially deadly consequences of mosquito-borne disease, a Nevada County senior citizen is the state’s first reported death this year from West Nile virus, according to the California Department of Public Health.

With California entering the peak season for West Nile outbreaks, state and county officials are warning the public to be diligent about protecting themselves.

“It’s that time of year when the risk of acquiring West Nile virus is high,” said Dr. Vicki Kramer, chief of the vector-borne disease section of the Department of Public Health. “Absolutely, we expect quite a few more human cases to be reported over the next several months.”

Because of privacy concerns, the state didn’t release the Nevada County resident’s age or gender. The death occurred within the last two weeks, but laboratory results didn’t come in until last weekend, the public health department said.

“It’s always a disappointment when you hear news about deaths from diseases like this because we strive very hard to prevent cases of West Nile,” said Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County’s public health officer. “People need to remember we do not have a vaccine, so the best way to protect ourselves is to prevent mosquitoes from breeding and protect ourselves from getting bitten.”

The elderly are at the greatest risk of becoming critically ill, especially those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer or kidney disease, according to public health officials. Seventy to 80 percent of people bitten by a West Nile-stricken mosquito will never experience any reaction. Another 20 percent will develop flulike symptoms, such as fever and muscle aches. Less than 1 percent develop the severe form, called West Nile neuroinvasive disease, which can lead to coma, paralysis or even death.

West Nile’s presence is affected by several factors, including heat and affected birds and mosquitoes. It’s also suspected that the drought could be a contributing factor because as water sources dry up, birds and mosquitoes seeking water can come into closer contact, exacerbating the virus’s potential to spread, health officials say.

As of Friday, 33 California counties have reported instances of West Nile activity in birds and insects – four more counties than this time last year and above the five-year average of 22 counties.

Since June, mosquito abatement officials in Sacramento and Yolo counties have found 31 cases of West Nile-infected dead birds. They urged the public to report dead birds found outdoors.

Last year, Sacramento County had eight cases of individuals hospitalized and recovered with West Nile virus and two deaths. So far this year, there has been one reported case of an infection in the county.

How to avoid West Nile

The state Department of Public Health recommends practicing the “Three D’s”:

DEET – To prevent mosquitoes from biting, apply insect repellent containing DEET, picaradin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535.

Dawn and dusk – Mosquitoes bite in the early morning and evening so cover arms and legs and wear repellent when outside. Make sure doors and windows have tight-fitting screens.

Drain – Mosquitoes lay their eggs on standing water. Eliminate all potential water sources by emptying flower pots, buckets, old car tires or other containers, as well as swimming pools.

More information:

A state website,, includes the latest county-by-county information. To report dead birds, visit the state’s West Nile website or call its hotline: 877-968-2473.