Everything's bigger in Texas, and that includes West Nile Virus outbreaks. Nearly 600 Texans have fallen ill and at least 21 have died as of a few days ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week reported a nationwide 55 percent rise in the number of people infected with the West Nile Virus (WNV) compared to last year, which to date is the largest outbreak since the first U.S. resident was infected back in 1999.
“The number of West Nile cases in people has risen dramatically in the last few weeks and indicates that we are in one of the biggest West Nile virus outbreaks we have ever seen in this country,” said the CDC's Dr. Lyle Peterson.
The disease claimed the lives of at least 41 people so far this year, which has brought the total amount of West Nile deaths in the U.S. to 1,118 since the disease was introduced here in 1999.
Besides Texas, other states with high rates of infection include Mississippi, South Dakota, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Blame the mosquito
WNV is most commonly spread to humans and animals by infected mosquitoes. Although the virus cannot be passed through physical contact, it can be transferred through blood transfusion and breast feedings, but these cases are rare, says the CDC.
The government agency also says the best protection against WNV is by following the same measures you would to protect yourself from being bitten by a mosquito.
For example covering your arms during summer months — especially at night — using the proper amount of insect repellant, while also making sure all of your window screens are intact and contain no holes where mosquitoes can easily fly in and bite your family and pets.
One of the scariest parts of WNV, say experts, is the high number of people who feel no trace or signs of the disease. According to the CDC, 80 percent of people who get the illness will not have any symptoms whatsoever.
Not everyone who gets the disease is subject to severe illness or death. Around one out of 150 people who get the disease develop serious symptoms, as many who are stricken only have the illness for a few days or weeks, according to published research by the CDC.
For those who do develop symptoms, they include body aches, fevers, swollen lymph glands, fever, stomach pains, skin rashes and other overt signs.
The more severe WNV is, the more intensified the symptoms are, and the longer they are likely to persist, say experts. The infection is known to develop about three days after one is bitten.
With Texas having the highest amount of WNV cases in the U.S., officials have declared a state of emergency and announced plans to immediately spray many acres with potent insecticides, but the residents in the area are concerned about the health implications. A lot of the aerial spraying is being done in Dallas.
The city's mayor, Mike Rawlings, says the insecticides were of no harm to the residents, although some insects that provide value to the environment may be killed.
“There's a lot of sentiment that people don't want this, and there's a fear of the unknown,” he said in a statement. “You have the science, the CDC and EPA and all of these cities across the United States that say this is okay,” he said.
A representative of the Texas State Department of Health Services says using the spray is far less harmful than not using it, and pulling back on the treatment would cause even a greater health risk.
“Risks with aerial spraying are very, very low, especially compared with the risk of disease, she said. “We believe it is a safe and very effective approach for Dallas.”
Many of the areas that have higher amounts of West Nile cases have longer stretches of summer than other parts of the United States, and that's no coincidence says Peterson.
“Hot weather, we know from experiments in the laboratory, can increase the transmission of the virus.
Other ways to protect yourself from the virus is to empty out left-over water in pet dishes, buckets, and pots, as this will help prevent mosquitoes from breeding in these areas, says the CDC.
The water in bird baths should also be changed each week, and children's plastic swimming pools should be emptied when not being used.