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NC sees West Nile virus cases rise higher than average, numbers remain in single-digits

A Culex pipien mosquito specimen in the insect collection at the Field Museum shows the type of mosquito that carries the West Nile virus. Photo Courtesy of E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS.

In a Sept. 19 press release, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported the West Nile virus has infected four people in the state, doubling the average number of cases at this point in the year. No deaths have been reported.

The West Nile virus is a mosquito-transmitted disease that can cause mild flu-like symptoms or, in rare cases, rash, vomiting, headache and fever. Only 20 percent of infected individuals experience the more severe symptoms.

“Most people who are infected with West Nile virus don't get sick at all – they'll never know,” said Helen Lazear, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 150 people will develop serious and sometimes fatal symptoms. The West Nile virus is the leading cause of mosquito-transmitted disease in the U.S. 

Lazear, who is leading research on the virus, said August and September are the two months when the most people will get infected.

"Detecting a number of West Nile virus infections is a reminder to take precautions, especially because there are two months of active transmission season ahead of us,” Michael Doyle, state public health entomologist with the NCDHHS, said in the press release.

Kelly Connor, the communications manager for NCDHHS, said that because there are no vaccines for the virus, prevention is key.

"(It's) definitely important to prevent getting bitten by mosquitos by using insect repellent, making sure that you don't leave a lot of standing water in your yard and stuff because that's where mosquitos breed," Connor said. 

Victoria Hudson, the environmental health director for Orange County, also said the County cannot kill or control the transmitter of the virus — mosquitos. As a result, Connor and Hudson both recommended people follow the precautions.

"Mosquito education and outreach will be offered to the Townships, the park systems, schools, childcares, churches, veterinarians and civic organizations," Hudson said in an email.

According to NCDHHS's recommended precautions, people should use mosquito repellent that contains DEET, picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus. They can also wear long sleeves, pants and socks when going out to protect themselves. While in their home, they should make sure their windows are intact and doors closed.

Moreover, people can reduce mosquito breeding by emptying standing water from places like flowerpots, pet water dishes and gutters.

Lazear said the virus has no specific symptoms.

“It might start as something that feels like aches and pains or fever," she said. "And then signs of neuroinvasive disease include things like headache or stiff neck or confusion."

The state health department recommends those who think they may be infected talk to their health care provider. UNC students can make an appointment with Campus Health to be tested.

The virus has been present in North Carolina for 20 years, but has not infected many people, Hudson said. Since 2002, when the cases were first documented, less than 100 confirmed cases have been reported.

The case numbers vary between years, but most remain within the single digits. In 2021, eight people were infected and one died.

“West Nile virus is endemic in North Carolina," Lazear said. "That means it's a virus that's here all the time. It circulates in nature. So this isn't a new virus that has just shown up here."

Lazear said the mosquitos that primarily carry the virus are called Culex mosquitos. Lazear said these mosquitos look brown and have no white stripes. They usually live close to stagnant or standing waters, like ponds and drainage ditches.

She said the reason this virus only causes a small portion of people to develop severe disease remains unclear, but she and her lab will continue to research it.


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