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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, February 21, 2024

West Nile virus hits home

There are a few things people expect at the Terrace: beer with friends, good live music, difficulty finding seats, maybe some mosquito bites. Something people don't expect at the Terrace: West Nile virus.  




Two possible human cases of West Nile virus were reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services Aug. 21. One is a 23-year-old female in Winnebago County who is recovering at home. The other is an 83-year-old male from Adams County who is improving in Meriter Hospital in Madison. Tests confirming the presence of the virus will take at least two weeks. 




Further, a total of 21 birds have tested positive for West Nile in Dane County, according to the state DHFS. A Deerfield-area horse has also tested positive for the virus. 




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\I can't say that any of us were really surprised about [the horse infection], but I think to say that we were actively expecting a case would probably be overstating it a little bit,"" said Gareth Johnson, administrator of Dane County Public Health. 




Infected mosquitoes, which contract the virus from infected birds, spread West Nile to humans. No evidence suggests that a person could acquire the virus from handling infected animals, and it doesn't spread person to person. 




""Humans and animals other than birds are generally incidental hosts and not part of the transmission cycle,"" said Bruce Christensen, professor of animal health and biomedical sciences. 




The majority of people who contract the virus don't become sick, according to the DHFS. Those with a mild infection often have symptoms similar to the flu, including headaches, fever and muscle aches. In more severe cases, encephalitis, paralysis, coma and even death may occur. Elderly people and those with weakened immune systems comprise most of the fatalities. 




""The odds of West Nile-infected mosquitoes biting any one individual is fairly small,"" said Thomas Yuill, UW-Madison professor of pathobiological sciences. ""It's not a disease of kids or young adults. It just turns out that West Nile produces the more serious disease in older people."" 




Although serious health problems may arise after exposure, experts advise people to remain calm and implement common sense precautions. 




""We're only urging people to apply the precautions that we have been urging for several weeks now,"" Johnson said. ""People need to make an effort to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes if they can."" 




The Center for Disease Control recommends several measures as protection, including applying insect repellent containing DEET, staying covered when outdoors and keeping standing water where mosquitoes would breed to a minimum. 




""This is something to take seriously, but ?? it's not reason for panic,"" Johnson said. ""I think people are responding with appropriate caution."" 




Yuill said that people are likely worried because of the nature of the virus. 




""People are concerned when two things happen'when there is a disease that seriously affects the brain. That really makes us uneasy, particularly when there is a possibility of death following that,"" Yuill said. ""The other thing that makes people uneasy is when something new pops up. I think concern is warranted. I think that taking precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes is warranted."" 




If an individual is exposed to West Nile and develops complications, doctors can prescribe medication to alleviate the symptoms of the illness, but no cure exists for West Nile virus for humans. An individual must mount his or her own immune response to combat the virus. Once a person is exposed and produced antibodies, the or she can enjoy a lifetime of immunity to the virus.  




""Once you've had it, you're home free,"" Yuill said. 




Those who wish to make a preemptive strike, such as a vaccine for West Nile may have to wait a decade. 




""A vaccine exists for a closely related virus, Japanese encephalitis, but its ability to protect people from West Nile virus is debatable,"" Christensen said. ""Vaccine development for West Nile itself is underway, but will undoubtedly take many years."" 




As for the future of West Nile, experts agree that it is here to stay.  




""Any place there are susceptible birds and mosquitoes that can pass it around, we will continue to see it expand north and south and as birds move east and west,"" Yuill said. ""We will continue to see it spread summer after summer."" 




Although the West Nile will make its mark across the country, it prevalence does not concern Yuill. 




""Chances are that you would spend your whole life here in Madison and not get infected with West Nile virus,"" Yuill said. 




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