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With the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting much of the United States and health experts advising people get their flu shots, there's another illness people need to worry about — West Nile virus.
Reports of people across the country being infected by the virus have been occurring frequently, including one man in Arizona and one person in Los Angeles County dying as a result of being infected. Sen. Charles Schumer has even asked for the federal government assist in killing mosquitoes in New York to prevent the virus from spreading in the state.
While it can cause sickness and death like COVID-19, the West Nile virus can be a silent killer since it comes from mosquitos. Victims who don't know they are infected could face seriously complications. Noreen Hynes, director of the Geographic Medicine Center of the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University, told USA TODAY "the real important thing is people have to protect themselves."
As cases of West Nile virus continue to rise throughout the country, experts are advising people to be cautious when being outdoors as autumn begins.
What is West Nile Virus?
West Nile virus first appeared in a Ugandan woman in 1937, and since then has spread throughout the world, first appearing in the U.S. in 1999, according to the World Health Organization.
The most common way people get the virus is through mosquito bites, but contrary to popular belief, the virus originates from birds, according to the WHO. Mosquitoes only get the virus by feeding on infected birds. When they do so, the virus then ends up in mosquito's salivary glands, which then gets into humans when mosquitoes bite them.
"A mosquito really prefers to bite birds," Hynes said. "But it's important for people to realize that the mosquitoes are happy to bite you, too."
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What are the signs and symptoms? How fatal is it?
While the virus can be fatal, it's not as common as people think.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of infected people don't experience symptoms. For the 20% that experience symptoms, they can range from headaches, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea, with fatigue and weakness that can last for months.
About 1 in 150 people infected develop severe illness affecting the central nervous system, which can result in disorientation, convulsions, paralysis and comas. The CDC estimated 10% of people who develop symptoms affecting their central nervous system die. There is no vaccine for West Nile, but it cannot spread by human contact unlike COVID-19.
Like most viral infections, people over the age of 60 and immunocompromised are at higher risk of developing worsening symptoms.
How are cases in 2021 compared to year's past?
While cases are on the rise, they are nowhere near the numbers in 2019, when 2,647 people were infected and 167 people died. The all-time worst year came in 2003, when 9,862 people were infected. The most deaths came in 2012, when 286 people, or 5% of infected people, died.
Since 1999, the West Nile virus has infected 52,944 Americans and is responsible for 2,463 U.S. deaths.
As of Sept. 21, 479 cases have been reported and 21 people have died. While the numbers aren't as high as other years, Hynes said August and September are peak times for the virus to spread. Sen. Schumer said this year is, "actually one of the worst mosquito seasons that we have had in recent memory," as the virus has been found in all five of New York City's boroughs.
Hynes said it's possible people being outside more this year than last year due to the pandemic may have contributed to high virus numbers, but what really does matter is this year has been wetter than 2020. Since much of the East Coast dealt with rain from Hurricane Ida, wetter weather can mean more mosquitoes as they lay their eggs and spend their first few days of life in water.
"They'll do it in even small amounts of water. So, if you have standing water around your house, you probably want to make sure that you pour it out after the rain so that the mosquitoes can't lay their eggs," she said.
How can you stay safe?
Hynes said mosquitoes are typically active from dusk until dawn so it is important to keep that in mind when being outdoors. People can buy mosquito repellent, but something you may not know: mosquitoes can bite you through your clothing.
"You would have to consider pre-treating your clothing before you go outside with permethrin," Hynes said.
Different brands and stores sell permethrin that can be put on the external side of clothing and camping gear. It can be extremely useful for people that like to camp or go on hikes.
"You can put that on your clothes and will stay embedded in the fibers for six weeks or six washings, whichever comes first," Hynes said.
Another clothing gear tip Hynes said is to wear lighter-colored clothes since mosquitos are attracted to darker clothes. Preventing a mosquito bite can help people avoid other diseases they can carry, such as malaria.
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: West Nile virus cases are rising, protect yourself from mosquitos