You’re achy. Feverish. Have a headache. Maybe a rash.
Is it COVID-19? Or one of the mosquito-transmitted viruses, like West Nile or dengue fever, that are cropping up in South Florida?
Infectious disease doctors warn the early symptoms are similar, as cases of locally acquired mosquito-borne illnesses are confirmed from the Florida Keys to North Palm Beach.
Broward County reported on Tuesday its first locally acquired case of West Nile virus since 2012. So far in 2020, 26 cases of West Nile have been confirmed in Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach County reported a locally acquired case in July. Monroe County has reported 26 cases of dengue this summer, mostly in a two-mile area within Key Largo.
“The symptoms are indistinguishable from each other early on,” said Dr. Chad Sanborn, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with KIDZ Medical Services and Palm Beach Children’s Hospital.
All of them — West Nile virus, dengue fever and COVID-19 — can arrive with fever, fatigue, headache, body aches, a rash or diarrhea or vomiting.
The big difference: Coughing and breathing difficulty doesn’t come with West Nile or dengue.
Mosquito-borne illnesses tend to appear two to six days after being bitten by an infected mosquito and last about a week if mild. It can feel like you have the flu, but without a cough or runny nose.
COVID-19, spreading rapidly in Florida with more than 500,000 confirmed cases, affects different people in different ways with a wide range of symptoms reported – from mild flu-like symptoms to severe respiratory illness. Cough or difficulty breathing are differentiating symptoms of the coronavirus.
The best way to know which illness you have is to get tested. Health officials are concerned that people are getting tested for Covid-19 and missing that they might have another illness when their results are negative. West Nile virus and dengue can be confirmed with a blood test.
Unlike coronavirus, West Nile and dengue are not spread through coughing, sneezing or touching. You get them only from the bite of an infected mosquito.
“If you can’t remember being bitten by a mosquito that doesn’t rule it out,” Sanborn said. He said children have warmer body temperatures and tend to play in grassy areas, making them susceptible to mosquito bites.
There are no vaccines to prevent or medications to treat West Nile infections in people, but only one in five infected develop symptoms. Less than 1% of infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, symptom such as swelling of the brain. With dengue, only one in four people get sick and symptoms can be mild or severe, such as internal bleeding.
As South Floridians stay close to home during the pandemic, many are spending time in their back yards or exercising at dusk when the temperatures are slightly cooler and mosquitoes are active. The area’s warm weather, and rain, makes it the perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Much like with COVID-19, age and underlying health issues play a role in mosquito-borne diseases, says Dr. Bindu Mayi, an infectious disease specialist with Nova Southeastern University’s Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine.
People 50 and older, as well as those with certain health conditions (such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension and kidney disease), are more likely to develop the severe form of West Nile virus. “If you are at risk and have symptoms, you should have heightened alertness,” Mayi said.
Broward Mosquito Control has been aggressively working to reduce the type of mosquito that carries this virus. “West Nile has been very rare in our area,” said Anh Ton, Broward County’s director of mosquito control. “I’m not sure why we are seeing it this year.”
Ton said his staff has sprayed larvacide and set up additional mosquito traps in the southern part of the county where the infection occurred.
Local health departments advise South Florida residents to drain standing water on your property and wear repellent with DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus, especially at dawn and dusk.
Cindy Krischer Goodman is the health reporter for the Sun Sentinel. Connect with her at email@example.com or 954-304-5908. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @cindykgoodman.
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