How to avoid infection with West Nile, the first human case reported in Maryland

Maryland has confirmed its first human case of West Nile virus this year after an adult living on the Eastern Shore tested positive.

The Maryland Department of Health announced that the patient is currently recovering from the infection. A total of 879 human cases of West Nile virus, including neuroinvasive and non-neuroinvasive cases, have been reported in 43 states this year as of September 12, 2023, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

West Nile virus is a seasonal epidemic that usually occurs during the summer months and continues into the fall.

The virus was first discovered in the United States in 1999. In Maryland, West Nile virus first appeared in 1999 in a crow in Baltimore. In 2020, one confirmed case was identified, four cases were identified in 2021 and one infection was identified in 2022, the Maryland Department of Health said in a press release.

“We are in the season where West Nile virus could spread in Maryland,” said Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, Deputy Secretary of Public Health Services. “We urge people to be vigilant and take necessary steps to avoid infection and eliminate pools of standing water where mosquitoes can breed. Our teams continue to monitor mosquito activity across the state.”

What is West Nile virus?

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes that feed on birds infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can transmit the virus to humans and animals when they bite for a blood meal.

In rare cases, the virus may also spread from person to person through organ donation, blood transfusion, breastfeeding, or from a pregnant mother to her fetus, the statement said.

The disease affects the nervous system, and up to 80% of infected people do not show any signs of the disease. However, those with underlying health conditions can become seriously ill. Ultimately, some cases may be fatal.

The Maryland Department of Health said people concerned about mosquitoes should cover exposed skin and use an EPA-registered insect repellent.

Residents are also urged to monitor their yards and private gardens in areas with high mosquito activity, especially standing water that can serve as a breeding ground. Even small amounts of water in a discarded can or container can support dozens of mosquitoes, as can clogs in rain gutters or downspouts, the release said.

What are the symptoms of West Nile virus?

While most people do not develop symptoms of this virus, some people who become ill may experience mild symptoms such as fever, headache, and body aches. Sometimes, a skin rash and swollen lymph nodes may be observed, the Maryland Department of Health said.

These symptoms may last for a few days or several weeks. People who are over 50 years old or who are immunocompromised are more likely to become severely ill when infected with West Nile virus.

According to the Maryland Department of Health, there is no specific treatment for West Nile virus infection at present. In severe cases, affected individuals may require hospitalization, which may include treatment with intravenous fluids, breathing support, and nursing care.

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How do I avoid getting sick?

Maryland residents can reduce their risk of West Nile virus infection by taking the following steps to protect themselves and eliminate mosquito breeding sites around their residences, businesses, and surrounding community:

  1. Limit the time you spend outdoors between dusk and dawn.
  2. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors.
  3. Use an EPA-registered insect repellent and follow the instructions on the product label. Repellents containing DEET are safe for use by adults and children when used according to package directions.
  4. Make sure all window screens in your home or business are intact and do not contain holes. Repair any damaged screens.
  5. Remove all waste tires from your property. If the tire cannot be removed, puncture or cut the tires to prevent water from accumulating in them.
  6. Discard tin cans, plastic containers, ceramic pots, or similar containers that contain water.
  7. Make sure your roof gutters drain properly. Clean clogged gutters in the spring and fall.
  8. Drain water from pool covers.
  9. Change the water in birdbaths at least once a week.
  10. Turn plastic wading pools and wheelbarrows down when not in use.
  11. Get rid of any standing water that collects on your property.
  12. Remind or help neighbors to remove breeding sites on their property.
  13. Check for water trapped in plastic or fabric tarps covering boats, swimming pools, etc. Arrange the fabric to allow water to drain.
  14. Bilge pumping in boats. Store kayaks and small boats upside down.
  15. Remove pet food and water dishes that are not used outdoors.
  16. Wash livestock water troughs twice a week.
  17. Do not leave litter box lids upside down. Don’t let water collect at the bottom of garbage cans or recycling bins.
  18. Check ornamental ponds, tree holes, and low-lying areas containing water for mosquito larvae.

— Tips source: Maryland Department of Health.

For more information about West Nile virus, including data and educational materials, visit the Center for Zoonoses and Vector-Borne Diseases or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s West Nile Virus information page online.

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Olivia Minzola covers the communities on the Lower Shore. Contact her with tips and story ideas at ominzola@delmarvanow.com.

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