If you work outside, you are at risk of contracting West Nile Virus. While not common, the Centers for Disease Control last year reported its highest number of West Nile cases since 2003. Spread by mosquitos, the virus can cause serious illness and even death. And it’s more common than people may think. The CDC says at least 243 people died from it last year. About 5,390 illnesses related to West Nile were reported.
Texas was the most common location, with one-third of all cases reported there. But 12 other states across the nation reported West Nile illnesses in humans; California, Louisiana, Illinois, Mississippi, South Dakota, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, Arizona, Ohio and New York.
West Nile is carried by mosquitoes that pick up the virus from birds and spread it to other animals, often horses, dogs and cats. Illnesses in animals are rare and minor. The virus is not normally spread from animals to humans because it can’t be spread by casual contact. Still, experts advise that people do not touch dead birds or other animals with their bare hands.
Prevention is the only cure
People who become ill usually recover within a few weeks with no treatment. Seriously ill people can receive treatment for symptoms such as IV fluids and breathing assistance, but there is no cure for West Nile, which can cause meningitis and encephalitis.
The CDC recommends people protect themselves with insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants, and avoid mosquito areas during dusk and dawn when they are most active. The insect repellent should include a product registered by the EPA, such as DEET or Picaridin.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has specific recommendations for protecting outdoor workers (www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2005-155/pdfs/2005-155.pdf). Those recommendations include training for employees and providing them with the proper insect repellent and protective clothing. NIOSH and OSHA also recommend the employers remove standing water from work places every week because that is where mosquitoes breed.
The CDC says 80 percent of people infected with the West Nile virus show no symptoms. About 20 percent get a mild illness that includes fever, headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash. Only about one in every 150 people infected with West Nile will develop a serious illness. Serious cases can cause severe symptoms such as high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. Those over 50 are most likely to acquire a severe illness.
Most West Nile deaths occur from encephalitis. Age is the most common risk factor for serious cases. In the last year for which data is available (2003), 45 people developed serious fevers, 46 got meningitis, 62 developed encephalitis (with or without meningitis), and 80 people died. Most of the deaths were from encephalitis.
While rare, West Nile can be dangerous. Protective steps are rather simple, and along with preventing illness, they can also make your day at work a lot more comfortable.