Just because we’ve just flipped a page on the calendar and school buses are about to roll in full force again doesn’t mean the threat of West Nile is on the wane. Indeed, on August 20 it was reported that a Montgomery County man was hospitalized with the virus. Two York County men were also recently diagnosed, bringing the count to three so far in the state.
And be advised: More than a million mosquitoes collected in Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and 33 other Pennsylvania counties all tested positive for the virus. The good news, though, is that, despite this rainy summer, we’re well below 2012’s count of 60 cases; we’re just not out of the woods yet—and probably never will be.
That’s because mosquitoes have been buzzing around since the Cretaceous period some 200 million years ago, and aren’t going anywhere—except after you and me. However, West Nile was only discovered in Africa some 75 years ago, and it didn’t make its way to the states until 1999. The very next year, infected mosquitoes were here in Pennsylvania and biting everyone in sight.
Essentially, though, it’s not a bite at all we’re getting. No, it’s more like a poke. Apparently, female mosquitoes dine on blood, and so, instead of biting, she inserts her proboscis—a “straw-like mouth”—and finds a blood vessel. Once there, her anti-clotting saliva gets the blood flowing—and it just feels like we’ve just been bitten.
As for the itch? It’s the result of our immune system coming to the fore and releasing histamine, which, in turn, swells the affected blood vessel and irritates surrounding nerves. When that happens, we start scratching.
It’s about then that we also start worrying if we’ll be infected and, if so, what happens then? Well, reportedly, most of us—70% to 80%--will have no adverse effects at all, but for some 20%, a fever will develop along with other such possible symptoms as:
- Body aches
- Joint pains
Unfortunately, there is no anti-viral medication available, so over-the-counter pain relievers have to do. The good news, though, is that such symptoms soon go away; for some, however, fatigue or weakness can last for weeks, even months.
The real danger of West Nile, though, is that for less than 1% of us, it can result in encephalitis or meningitis, serious conditions that involve in inflammation of the brain. Indeed, a California man recently died this summer as a result; last year 243 related deaths were reported.
In other words, don’t take the risks lightly, especially since there’s no vaccine out there as of yet either. There are, however, measures we can take to protect ourselves.
Start by emptying standing water in wheelbarrows, flower pots, discarded tires, pool covers, and the like. Have a birdbath? Then be sure to change the water every week, too. Remember: Mosquito larvae grow in water left standing for more than a week. Then also:
- Wear long sleeves and pants, socks, too.
- Add or repair window and door screens.
- Be extra vigilant at dawn and dusk when mosquito activity is at its peak.
- Drill holes in the bottoms of any outdoor containers.
- Get roof gutters cleaned out annually.
- Turn over wading pools when not in use.
- Fix leaky outdoor faucets.
- Report dead birds to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
And don’t forget to apply insect repellant that contains such ingredients as:
- Picardin: This non-odorous, non-irritating chemical offers all-day protection from mosquitoes and ticks, but is not as effective as DEET.
- DEET: Though known to cause neurological damage, seizures, and eye irritation, it can provide all day protection at a concentration of 20% to 30%. The Environmental Working Group calls it a “reasonable choice.”
- IR3535: Although considered safe, it can irritate eyes and even melt plastic and damage fabric. Plus, it’s only effective at concentrations above 20%.
- Eucalyptus Plus Tree Extract: Also known as oil of lemon eucalyptus, this plant-based substance offers up to 6 hours of protection at a 30% concentration. It can irritate lungs, though, and should NOT be used on children under 3.
Meanwhile, be forewarned: Do NOT use anything containing more than 30% DEET, and use nothing on children under 6 months of age.
Thankfully, Montgomery County is taking protective measures on our behalf, as well. In fact, on the 4th, spraying will take place between 7:45 p.m. and 11 p.m. in selected areas of Whitemarsh Township, with an 11th rain date. Spraying has already been conducted in selected areas of Cheltenham, Upper Merion, and Upper Moreland townships.
All this effort begs the question then: Do these buzzing blood-suckers serve any purpose whatsoever? The answer is, yes, they actually do. You see, since larvae live on the water, they’re “a nutrient-packed snack” for fish and other aquatic animals. Notes naturalist Debbie Hadley, “Their extinction, were it even achievable, would have an enormous adverse effect on the entire ecosystem.”
Who knew, right?