West Nile Virus

Question

West Nile virus has officially reached our hometown. By the end of the summer they say it will be all across the state. How concerned do I need to be? What are the symptoms? Treatment?

Dr. Greene's Answer

The West Nile virus (WNV) can be scary, but even in places where it has been appearing for a few years, the number of people who get it is very, very tiny.

Thankfully, the majority of cases of West Nile VirusWNV are asymptomatic, meaning the patient doesn’t even feel sick. About 20% of infected people develop a febrile illness called West Nile Fever. Less than 1% ever develop the most frightening form of WNV, West Nile Neuroinvasive disease.

The symptoms of West Nile Fever are often like the flu: fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, abdominal symptoms, and sometimes a rash.

The symptoms of West Nile Neuroinvasive disease are like meningitis or encephalitis: bad headache, light sensitivity, stiff neck, and fever. There may be abnormal movements, muscle weakness, and paralysis.

As of yet, there is not a specific treatment, just support until people get over it. Of the 19 people in the United States who got the West Nile virus in the year 2000, the average hospital stay was 7 days. Five were sick enough to be in an ICU and two were sick enough to be on a ventilator. Two died. But this is out of many millions of people in the area, and one-third of those who got sick were older than age 75. The two who died were both over age 80.

The average age of people in the New York “epidemic” was 63. Kids can get it, but it’s much less common. West Nile is rough on birds, though. Avoiding mosquitoes and birds is the best way to prevent it.

Medical Review on: April 01, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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