My first article on West Nile virus was in 2003. Not much has changed in the last five years. Mosquitoes continue to threaten us every summer. Summer is a time to be free, be outdoors and have fun. But mosquitoes spoil the fun.
Every year we go through this process of reminding ourselves to protect against this horrible virus. Just like we do in winter against flu virus. The difference is there is no vaccine yet against West Nile virus.
This year the battle has already started. Alberta Government has been advertising in the media to remind us about the precautions we need to take to prevent mosquito bites. Dr. Paul Schnee, Medical Officer of Health and Gordon Wright, Health Promotion Facilitator, both from Palliser Health Region, have been relentless in reminding the doctors and the public about West Nile virus.
I thought mosquitoes would consider me their friend and spare me from their horrible stinging bites. You see, I was born and raised on the shores of Lake Victoria. A small town called Musoma, in Tanzania, East Africa. There was no shortage of mosquitoes and malaria in Tanzania. Then I moved to India to go to college. There is no shortage of mosquitoes there either. Now in Canada, I am faced with the same battle. I have been fighting mosquitoes all my life. They show no respect for me. And they show no respect to public in general.
West Nile virus was first isolated in 1937 from the blood of a patient on the West Nile province of Uganda. Not too far from where I was born. The man had fever. Initially, the outbreaks of the disease were few. But in the last 15 years the numbers have increased.
In North America, the virus was first detected in 1999. It was in New York. From there it was exported to Ontario and rest of Canada. Most cases of West Nile virus are mild and self-resolving. But one per cent of cases get infection in the nervous system.
West Nile virus is carried by birds. Mosquitoes get infected by feeding on the blood of these birds. Infected mosquitoes then transmit the virus to humans when they bite us.
All mosquitoes need water to develop from their immature stages to adulthood. The life cycle takes less than 10 days to complete if the surrounding temperature is favorable. Once the adult mosquito is ready to fly then it looks for something to eat.
Nectar from flowers provides energy to both male and female mosquitoes. While male mosquitoes feed exclusively on nectar, the female mosquito needs blood to produce her eggs. The source of blood can be animals (including people) and birds.
It is important to control the breeding sites around your home by preventing stagnation of water (flower pots, gardening cans, wheelbarrows, puddles, tire swings, bird baths and eavestroughs) even in small quantities. Boats and gardening containers can be stored upside down. These are just a few examples.
During mosquito season you should limit your outdoor activities. Minimize exposure of your skin by wearing long pants, long sleeves, socks and shoes when outdoors. Loose clothings will keep mosquitoes away from the skin. Use insect repellents like DEET. Read the directions carefully before using DEET-based repellents especially in children, infants and yourself.
Remember, Culex tarsalis is the mosquito that spreads the virus here. The Culex is just out and is now active. It comes to us from July to September (first freeze). Now is the time to start really watching for this one, says Gordon Wright, Palliser’s Health Promotion Facilitator. There is no sign of the virus yet, but we are assuming it will be here soon, says Wright.
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