The Kansas health department earlier this month issued an alert the entire state is considered at “high risk” for possible transmission of West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitoes.
No cases had been reported in Ellis County or northwest Kansas as of early June, but the increased risk likely is related to the unusually high amount of precipitation much of the state has received, said Kerry McCue, administrator of the Ellis County health department.
“We kind of have an unusual year going on with all the rain, so those kinds of diseases are going to naturally increase with the increase in habitat for mosquitoes and other insects, like ticks,” McCue said.
One of the best ways to reduce mosquito bites is to remove any standing water from your yard, McCue said. That might include wading pools, blocked gutters, even old tires or buckets that might collect rainwater outside your home. Mosquitoes breed in standing water.
It’s also important to promptly remove any dead animals or birds on or around your property, McCue said.
“That seems to be the most common place that the mosquitoes pick it up, is a dead bird that has a disease,” he said.
West Nile is the most common arboviral disease in the state of Kansas, though ticks can carry other illnesses.
According to statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the state has had 533 confirmed cases of West Nile virus from 1999 to 2015. Those cases resulted in 19 deaths during the same time period.
While there have not been any confirmed reports in northwest Kansas or Ellis County, there was one diagnosis already this summer in nearby Barton County.
The high risk declaration means high numbers of virus-positive mosquitoes have been detected, which could increase the probability of being bitten by an infected insect, according to the KDHE website.
The illness is not spread from person to person, and only can be contracted by a bite from an infected mosquito.
Fortunately, the majority of people who contract the virus recover without any major complications. Many of them might not ever know they had West Nile, said Kimberly Koerner, infection prevention officer at Hays Medical Center.
“When someone gets bitten by an infected mosquito, usually about 70 to 80 percent of people have no symptoms at all and they’ll do just fine,” Koerner said.
Mild, flu-like symptoms sometimes appear several days after the bite, and can last for nearly two weeks. Those symptoms often include fever, headache, body aches, nausea or vomiting, swollen lymph nodes or a rash.
If the fever becomes high or patients start to develop significant pain, they should contact a physician. It’s also important to call a doctor immediately if your neck becomes stiff or a headache becomes severe, she said. In rare cases, West Nile can result in meningitis or encephalitis — which cause inflammation of the spine’s protective membranes and brain, respectively.
“People over 50 are at higher risk for the most severe illness, or people that have other medical conditions, such as diabetes or cancer or some type of heart disease,” Koerner said.
Precautions also should be taken to protect young children, who also could be more at risk for complications.
Those precautions can include wearing light-weight long pants or sleeves when outside, or using insect repellent such as DEET or certain lemon or eucalyptus oils, according to KDHE.
“Dawn and dusk are the times that the mosquitoes are out, so if you can even avoid being outdoors at those times, that would be helpful as well,” she said.