West Nile Virus Threat Spikes; Local Cases Reported

BERLIN — With one reported human case of West Nile Virus reported in Worcester County and over a dozen more across the state including one fatality, local health officials this week continued to advise residents to take measures to protect themselves from the mosquito-borne illness and at least one community has ramped up its spraying efforts.

West Nile Virus has re-emerged as an illness bearing close watch this year with nearly 1,600 human cases reported around the country including 66 deaths, representing the highest number of reported cases since WNV was first detected in the U.S. since 1999.

Locally, 13 cases have been reported in Maryland with several on the Eastern Shore, including one reported case in Ocean Pines in Worcester County and another in Salisbury.

Local health department officials are keenly aware of the potential risk and since mid-August have issued warnings and recommendations for residents to avoid contracting the mosquito-borne illness.

“We’re taking a proactive, preventative approach,” said Dr. Andrea Mathias, deputy health officer and medical director for the Worcester County Health Department yesterday. “From a public health perspective, there are things we are recommending to individuals to minimize the risk of contracting West Nile Virus.”

Health officials across the Lower Shore including Worcester and Wicomico are advising residents to take measures to protect themselves from West Nile Virus in light of increased activity nationwide. According to the health departments of the three Lower Shore counties, the best way to prevent contracting the virus is to avoid mosquito bites.

When that is not possible, the health department advises residents and visitors to avoid being outdoors at dawn or dusk or to wear long sleeves and pants during those times. When outdoors, citizens are advised to use insect repellents and carefully follow the instructions. Install and repair screens on doors and windows and use air conditioning when possible. In addition, empty standing water from items outside the home including gutters, flower pots, buckets, kiddie pools, pet bowls and bird baths.

Most people with WNV will not show symptoms although some may have mild to severe symptoms including fever, headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or rash. There are no medications to treat of vaccines to prevent WNV infection. People with milder illnesses typically recover on their own although symptoms may last for several weeks. People age 50 or older and those with certain medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease and organ transplants are at greater risk for serious injury. Anyone with symptoms is urged to contact a health care provider.

“The symptoms are often very flu-like,” said Mathias. “Many people might have flu-like symptoms and think they have a cold or they just stay home and think they have the flu. Our cautionary statement would be if flu-like symptoms persist, especially severe headaches and high fevers, we would recommend they seek medical attention and get the appropriate tests.”

Despite a drop in reported cases of WNV in Worcester County in recent years after the latest scare a few years back, the Ocean Pines Association (OPA) this week reminded residents to take the recommended cautions to avoid contracting the virus. 
“West Nile activity in any given year is tough to predict,” said OPA General Manager Bob Thompson this week. “We don’t want people to think the low case numbers we’ve seen recently means this disease should be ignored.”

Ocean Pines is clearly not ignoring the warnings. With the Maryland Department of Agriculture reporting multiple occurrences of WNV on the Eastern Shore including a WNV-positive mosquito pool and a human case in the community, the OPA’s mosquito control program this week began spraying all streets in the community, including those streets or residents that have opted out of the spray program.

This follows normal procedure for communities with multiple West Nile Virus events. Spraying began this week and will continue for two weeks. After two weeks, if the situation abates, the OPA will return to its normal process of measuring mosquito populations to justify spraying.

One local company on the front lines of the battle is Screenmobile of Delmarva, which can be hired to come to homes and repair damaged screens on door, windows and porches that could allow infected mosquitoes to enter residences.

“We go to the home and are able to fabricate whatever repairs are needed to screens and doors right on site,” said company spokesperson Cindy McGrath. “We haven’t seen a spike yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming. It’s been so hot the last couple of weeks, most people are running their air conditioning, but when it cools and they start opening doors and windows, we expect to see an increase in the need for screen repairs for doors and windows.”