Local bug expert weighs in on West Nile Virus outbreak

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – People are trying to fend off mosquitoes any way they can now after the Arkansas Department of Health reported this week the first death from West Nile Virus in the state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have now reported 1,118 human cases of the disease nationwide, with 41 deaths this year.

This marks the highest number reported to the CDC since the virus was first detected in 1999.

Doctors are unsure why they are seeing more cases now than in recent years, leaving others to speculate what caused the spike.

Dr. Tanja McKay teaches entomology at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

She has conducted extensive research on the mosquito's ability to transmit heartworms, but the rising number of West Nile Virus cases has peaked her interest.

"The numbers seem to be a bit higher this year compared to previous summers," Dr. McKay said, "and I think it's because of the climate."

McKay explained Thursday that the mild winter and early spring allowed mosquitoes to begin breeding much sooner than expected. The hot summer has kept conditions ideal for the population to grow even more, so with more mosquitoes comes a higher risk of contracting the virus.

McKay says people should consider taking certain preventative measures, especially during this time of the year. Mid-August through September have usually proved to be the peak time for infections, according to health officials.

"Dawn and dusk are the most important times to kind of watch out, make sure you're not in contact with mosquitoes," she advised. "Wear long sleeves, long pants. That would be a very good protective measure from West Nile."

The state health department estimates about one in five people infected with the virus will develop mild symptoms, like fever and nausea. People can typically recover from these symptoms on their own, although they may last for several weeks.

Less than one percent will develop a serious neurologic illness such as encephalitis or meningitis. About 10 percent of people who develop a neurologic infection due to West Nile Virus will die, according to ADH.

"I hope nobody that I know gets it, or I hope nobody period gets it," said Joylyn Gregory, an ASU freshman. "It's very scary."

"I just smack them and pray for the best that I don't catch anything," added Lorraine Nwora, a sophomore. "I just kill them."

ADH recommends people follow the "three d's" to avoid mosquito bites: drain standing water from yards; don't go out at dusk and dawn; and do use insect repellents with the active ingredient of DEET.

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