What Is the West Nile Virus?

To celebrate Mosquito and West Nile Virus Awareness Week, we thought it might be a good idea to do a more in-depth post about the virus itself.

So, in this article, you’ll find out how you can get infected, the symptoms, the possible complications, and the treatments.

We’ll also talk a little about how to avoid getting this virus in the first place. We should all understand this disease better and know what to do in case a mosquito that is carrying the West Nile virus bites us.

The History of the West Nile Virus

The West Nile virus is an arthropod-borne virus that originated in Africa.

The first time a patient was isolated for this virus was in the West Nile District in Uganda in 1937. At first, doctors thought that this patient had another virus because there are many similar viruses with similar symptoms. But when they saw how the virus affected the patient’s central nervous system, it became clear that a new type of virus had emerged. Since this was the first recorded appearance of this virus, scientists named it after its birthplace: the West Nile.

About 20 years later, doctors made the first epidemiology and ecology characterizations when an epidemic of the West Nile virus broke out in the Mediterranean basin, Israel, Egypt, and the Nile Delta region.

Later, as scientists found out more and more about the new virus, it had already spread as far as France, South Africa, Russia, and Spain. In 1996, the virus changed its epidemiology and clinical spectrums when it was found in an area around Bucharest, Romania. While previously found exclusively in non-urban areas, this was its first time in an urban area.

After that, the virus popped up now and then all over the so-called Old World, in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. Only in 1999 was the West Nile virus first detected in the New World, in New York City to be exact.

At first, doctors thought it was encephalitis. They later recognized it as the West Nile virus. Since then, the West Nile virus has been a huge problem, especially North America but also in southern Europe (such as Italy and France) as well as other countries, Israel and Russia specifically.

How You Can Get It

As you’ve probably already figured out, the most common way to get the West Nile virus is from mosquitoes that are carriers of the virus. One species of mosquitoes, in particular, is known for carrying the virus. That is the Culex pipiens or the common house mosquito. The mosquito transmits the virus into your bloodstream while it’s sucking your blood.

Touching or even kissing an infected person will not transmit the infection. Eating infected meat and blood transfusions can spread the West Nile virus, though.

West Nile Virus Symptoms

The good news is that most infected people (about 8 out of 10) might not experience any symptoms or may only have minor symptoms. Some example symptoms include mild fever or headache that goes away within a few days by itself as your immune system fights the virus.

The bad news is that there’s no vaccine for the West Nile virus for humans.

Unfortunately, about 1 out of every 150 infected people will experience severe symptoms and can even develop a life-threatening illness from this virus that will absolutely need medical treatment. The most common symptoms of the West Nile virus are:

  • severe headaches;
  • a high fever;
  • disorientation;
  • confusion;
  • a stiff neck;
  • pain or partial paralysis; and
  • sudden weakness in your arms, legs, or breathing muscles.

This can lead to inflammation of the brain or of the membranes surrounding the brain and the spinal cord (encephalitis or meningitis).

So, if you experience these symptoms after a mosquito bite or after spending time outdoors, seek medical attention immediately. Keep in mind that the incubation period for the West Nile virus is 3–14 days. If you notice any symptoms, you must begin to treat the virus right away to avoid suffering any lasting effects.

West Nile Virus Treatment

Your doctor will test you for the West Nile virus. They usually do this by analyzing a blood sample and checking for West Nile virus antibodies. Once diagnosed, you’ll begin receiving treatment, which will differ from case to case.

For the more mild cases, pain relievers can do the trick. More severe cases, on the other hand, will often require supportive therapy in the hospital. This will include the use of intravenous fluids and medicine to prevent any further infection. More recently, doctors have begun using immune cell therapy on encephalitis patients.

How to Protect Yourself From the West Nile Virus 

The best thing you can do is to try and avoid this and other mosquito-borne diseases altogether. You can do this by following a few simple rules during mosquito season.

The first thing you can do is get rid of any standing water around your home. This will eliminate the possible breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

You can also reduce your own exposure to mosquitoes by limiting your outdoor activities at dusk and dawn. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and using mosquito repellents can help, too.

For a more long-term solution, you can also try to use a mosquito fogger regularly. This will kill the active mosquitoes around your home and stop them from breeding and making new mosquitoes.

Most importantly, pay special attention to infants and younger children. They’ve had less exposure to mosquitoes, so it’s more likely for them to have adverse reactions to mosquito bites.

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