Students May Be at Higher Risk for West Nile Virus, Prevention Key

By Adam Mills

Contributing Writer

University of Alabama students may run a higher risk of exposure to West Nile Virus than others due to increased time outdoors in times of heightened mosquito activity, said a university assistant professor.

Lea Yerby is an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Rural Medicine and the Institute for Rural Health Research in the College of Community Health Sciences who has done extensive research on the virus. She said students’ lifestyles might make them more exposed to mosquitoes.

“We get football and hunting seasons started around this time and exercise programs like our Crimson Couch to 5K program starts and we are outside with the hungry mosquitoes,” Yerby said. “WNV is endemic to the South, meaning it’s here all the time and most likely here to stay. Technically, we are all at risk every summer and fall just by living in Alabama.”

According to an Aug. 21 statement by the Alabama Department of Public Health, one of more than eight people diagnosed with WNV in the state was in Tuscaloosa County. The statement included one death of an individual in Montgomery County.

The current outbreak is on track to be the largest in history, said the CDC. The organization reports an estimated 1,118 cases “confirmed or probable” nationwide, with 41 deaths.

“We have had perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes, with a mild winter, an extra hot summer, and some areas with a lot of rain and flooding,” Yerby said. “This virus has only been in the US since 1999, so we are still learning about other reasons why it so prevalent this year.”

All sources pointed to preventative measures as critical in combating the virus.

“The only thing you can do is prevent getting bitten,” said Tracey Elmore, environmental area director of the Tuscaloosa Department of Public Health. “There’s no vaccine for it, no treatment for it, actually. It’s like the flu.”

Elmore and Yerby agreed that basic precautions, like insect repellent, are important preventative techniques.

“The best thing you can do is wear bug repellent that works – so something including DEET – such as Off!, Cutter or Repel – or Picaridin,” Yerby said. “While these are proven safe, some people are nervous to use them or want a more natural option. In that case, go for one of the products that works by using oil of lemon eucalyptus, sometimes called PMD.”

The two said students should also stay inside during dawn and dusk or wear sleeves and pants if possible.

“It’s not glamorous, but it’s true,” Yerby said.

Elmore said students should avoid or empty any standing water around residences and outfit windows and doors with screens. She also said light clothes tend to draw fewer mosquitoes than dark.

Despite heightened risk of exposure, the ADPH reported that only around 20 percent of infected persons will show the flu-like symptoms associated with mild cases of WNV.

“Less than 1 percent will develop a serious neurological illness such as encephalitis or meningitis — inflammation of the brain or surrounding tissues,” according to the ADPH. “About 10 percent of people who develop a neurological infection due to WNV will die. People over 50 years of age and those with certain medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease and organ transplants, are at a greater risk for serious illness.”