Like hot, humid days, mosquitoes are just part of the Mississippi summer landscape.
It might be easy to brush off mosquito bites as a nuisance, but the risk of West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses isn’t insignificant. West Nile Virus first arrived in Mississippi in 2002, and there have been cases – and unfortunately deaths – every year since.
“We know it’s here to stay,” said Dr. Paul Byars, state epidemiologist. “We know people need to protect themselves.”
Although most people exposed to the West Nile Virus will have no symptoms, it can be life-threatening. The virus can cause flu-like illness with aches, chills and fever and in severe cases, spinal and brain infections that can cause paralysis and death.
Over the past eight years, West Nile Virus has made hundreds of Mississippians ill, many of them critically, and killed more than a dozen. Some of those who have recovered have lasting weakness and paralysis.
Only one case of West Nile has been confirmed during 2010 and it dates to January. No cases have been confirmed by the state health department lab so far this summer. But it’s not likely to stay that way.
“Most of the cases occur in July, August and September,” Byars said.
Although it’s impossible to eliminate mosquitoes, there are key steps individuals can take to reduce their risk:
– Avoid being outdoors during the peak times for mosquito activity.
– Protect against mosquito bites with repellent and with clothing with long sleeves and pants.
– Reduce breeding habitat by eliminating standing water and flushing out bird baths and pet bowls.
People over 50 should be especially careful, because they have the highest risk of developing serious problems with West Nile.
In Mississippi, the Southern house mosquito is the primary mode of transportation for West Nile between birds and humans.
This urban mosquito loves small amounts of still, stagnant water that’s full of organic matter, like decaying leaves.
“Clean out gutters and get rid of old tires,” Byars said. “Those are the places it loves.”
There’s been some speculation that drought seems to increase the number of West Nile cases.
“It’s hard to tie specific increases and decreases to weather changes,” Byars said. “It’s probably more about temperature.”
Mississippi’s mild winter temperatures can work in the mosquitos’ favor.
“We know this mosquito can be active year round,” Byars said. “You have to be vigilant and protect yourself.”
Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal