Mississippi families will have to defend their health against two potentially troublesome viruses – West Nile Virus and swine flu.
Influenza usually thrives in cold weather, when people stay huddled indoors together. In Mississippi, flu usually peaks in January and February. The novel H1N1 virus has simmered through the summer. So far, Mississippi has had more than 260 confirmed cases of the new swine flu
West Nile Virus has been putting extra sting in mosquito bites since 2002 in Mississippi. It’s most active between August, September and October. So far, there have been four West Nile cases confirmed in Mississippi, along with another mosquito-borne disease – St. Louis encephalitis.
There’s no need to panic over either swine flu or West Nile Virus, but people do need to take common sense precautions against both bugs, said Dr. Paul Byers, a medical consultant to the Mississippi State Department epidemiology office.
“It’s still important to do what’s right to make sure you stay healthy,” said Byers, who is serving as the interim health officer for District II in Northeast Mississippi, following the retirement of Dr. Robert Trotter.
It’s hard to say exactly how much swine flu and West Nile Virus will come over the next few months.
“In Mississippi, we have West Nile,” Byers said. “We’re going to have cases every summer.”
It’s impossible to predict the severity of this year’s West Nile season, Byers said.
“It’s just so early,” Byers said.
There’s usually some flu running around in the summer months, but the health department usually only tracks it closely in the late fall, winter and early spring because that’s when it’s the biggest threat. The state’s sentinel physician network is reporting the influenza-like illness is making up about the same percentage of office visits that it usually does in the summer, Byers said.
Public health officials will be watching closely as school starts to see if swine flu infections move from their summer simmer to full boil. Over the summer, the swine flu has popped up particularly at summer camps, where groups of kids and young adults are in close quarters.
“You should take it seriously,” Byers said, but at this point, there’s no recommendations to avoid large crowds or keep healthy kids out of school.
Even though West Nile Virus is spread by mosquitos and swine flu is spread by respiratory droplets, the two conditions do have several things in common.
Both West Nile Virus and swine flu have some overlapping symptoms. Both are associated with fever and muscle aches.
“The big difference is the flu is a respiratory disease,” Byers said. “There’s usually a cough.”
West Nile Virus can affect the central nervous system. Symptoms include headaches, change in mental status, weakness or paralysis.
Neurological symptoms show up rarely in influenza, Byers said.
Anti-viral medications are available that can shorten the duration and severity of influenza, and so far swine flu is responding well to them.
The treatment for West Nile Virus is focused on preventing secondary infections and supporting the person as their body fights the disease.
“When in doubt, don’t try to self-diagnose,” Byers said. “If you feel like you have the flu, stay home,” and contact your health care provider for instructions.
Most cases of West Nile Virus and swine flu are relatively mild, and people recover without long-term effects. But both swine flu and West Nile Virus can become devastating and life-threatening diseases.
At its most severe, West Nile can attack the brain and spinal cord. The severe cases seem to occur in about 1 out of 150 cases. In 2008, there were 65 West Nile Virus cases confirmed and three deaths.
People over 50 seem to be at the highest risk for West Nile Virus, but it can hit anyone.
Like seasonal flu, swine flu seems to hit hardest those people with underlying medical conditions, like asthma, diabetes or immune-system disorders. Just over 300 people have died from swine flu in the United States this spring and summer, but no deaths have been reported in Mississippi.
So far, the swine flu seems to be hitting children, teens and young adults in greater numbers than older folks. However, older adults still can get sick with swine flu, and the elderly are generally at increased risk for potentially life-threatening complications.
A vaccine for swine flu is being developed and is projected to be available in limited quantities in October.
Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal