Harford health official urges West Nile virus precautions

A fatal West Nile virus case reported recently in Maryland is prompting the Harford County Health Department to ask residents to take precautions against contracting the potentially fatal disease, which is carried by mosquitoes from infected birds to humans.

The state health department last week said 13 cases of West Nile have been reported in the state this year, including one fatal case that was reported last month, according to a Baltimore Sun article. State health officials would provide no details about the victim, including his or her county of residence.

Harford County recorded one the first fatal cases of West Nile virus in the state nine years ago, when a 76-year-old Bel Air man was diagnosed with the disease in August 2003 and died the following January.

Maryland had 19 cases of West Nile, including one death, in 2011 and 23 cases reported in 2010, according to The Sun article, which also reported that cases are up substantially nationwide this year, prompting federal health officials to warn that 2012 cases could approach the record years of 2002 and 2003.

"West Nile Virus continues to threaten the health of Maryland residents," State Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said in a recent media advisory. "These findings remind us that there are basic actions we can all take to reduce our risk of getting infected."

Most people are at low risk for disease. People 50 and older, however, have the highest risk of developing severe illness if infected, while those who spend a lot of time outdoors have a greater risk of being bitten by an infected mosquito, according to the state health department.

According to the state health department, West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne disease that affects the nervous system. Although approximately eight of 10 people infected with West Nile virus will not experience any symptoms or signs of illness at all, some people who develop illness may experience mild flu-like symptoms occasionally accompanied by a skin rash and swollen lymph glands. These symptoms may last a few days or as long as several weeks.

Fewer than 1 percent of persons infected with WNV develop more severe disease, with symptoms such as high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis. These symptoms may last several weeks and effects on the nervous system may be permanent, the state health department said.

"Prevention is key and there are actions individuals can take to reduce the risk of West Nile virus infection," Harford County Health Officer Susan Kelly said in a news release. "In addition to personal protection, prevention requires attention to your surroundings." She encourages the public to "help reduce the number of mosquitoes in outdoor areas where they work or play by draining any sources of standing water, even small ones, where mosquitoes can lay their eggs and breed."

Among Kelly's recommendations are:

• At least once or twice a week, empty water from flower pots, pet food and water dishes, birdbaths, swimming pool covers, buckets, barrels, cans or from any other place where you find standing water.

• Check for clogged rain gutters and clean them out if necessary.

• Look for containers or trash in places that may be hard to see, such as under bushes or under your home.

• Fix dripping faucets.

• Aerate ornamental pools and water gardens or stock with fish and use a circulating filter system.

• Install or repair window and door screens so that mosquitoes cannot get indoors.

"Just as importantly, there are measures people can take to effectively protect themselves from mosquito bites," Kelly continued. "These include avoiding areas of high mosquito activity, as well as avoiding unnecessary outdoor activities at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active. Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and hats when concerned about mosquito exposure and use an EPA-registered insect repellent according to package directions. Also, be sure to place mosquito netting over infant carriers when you are outdoors with infants."

In Maryland, West Nile Virus first appeared in 1999 in a crow in Baltimore City. The first human West Nile cases were reported in 2001 and since that time WNV activity has been found in humans, birds, mosquitoes, horses other mammals throughout all jurisdictions, reaching a peak of 73 human cases and more than 230 infected horses in 2003.

For more information on the West Nile virus, visit Harford County Health Department website, http://www.harfordcountyhealth.com, contact the health department, 410-612-1781, visit the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene website, http://ideha.dhmh.md.gov/OIDEOR/CZVBD/SitePages/west-nile.aspx, or the National Centers for Disease Control website, http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/index.htm.

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