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West Nile risk highest of year, officials warn

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — The environment more than the calendar determines when mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus target unprotected Alabamians for their next meal.

This year, the ideal environment is now, not July or August, when mosquitoes hid from the drought and heat, and few humans ventured outdoors.

State health officials warn that mosquitoes feel friskier now, so people need to protect themselves against insects that may harbor West Nile, a virus potentially deadly in humans.

"It is not the calendar, but the things that influence behavior that make the difference," said Christopher Sellers, epidemiology analysis branch manager for the Alabama Department of Public Health. A little rain, a little standing water and a lot of people enjoying the outdoors create the perfect environment for West Nile, he said.

Alabama has recorded 10 cases of confirmed or probable West Nile virus in 2007, Sellers said. The only two North Alabama cases as of Wednesday were in Marshall County, but Sellers said cases are on the rise. Montgomery County recorded the most cases, with three confirmed and three probable, but Chambers and Mobile counties also had cases.

At some point in the past, every county in the state has recorded West Nile, he said.

Dr. Charles Woernle, assistant state health officer for disease control, said children under 15 and adults over 50 are the most likely to suffer serious side effects from West Nile infection.

Many people will have no symptoms. Others may have a mild flu-like illness with fever, headache, nausea, swollen lymph nodes, body aches and sometimes a rash before they recover.

But the virus can cause encephalitis or meningitis, both potentially life-threatening disorders affecting the brain. Serious symptoms include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and/or paralysis.

Most victims develop symptoms three to 14 days after a bite by an infected mosquito.

The Tennessee Valley is not immune to mosquito-born illness. Malaria data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that up to one-third of the area's population had malaria as recently as the 1940s.

There is no vaccine for West Nile and no medicine to cure it.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has information about prevention and control of West Nile and other mosquito-born illnesses at

Protecting yourself from West Nile

What to wear

1. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothes to help make yourself less “attractive” to mosquitoes, which like dark colors.

2. Wear long sleeves and long pants when possible.

3. Avoid perfumes, colognes and fragrant toiletries.

Using repellents

1. Follow the label instructions when applying repellents. Those containing DEET and Permethrin are most effective, but the Environmental Protection Agency cautions that Permethrin sprays are only for clothes, not for use on the skin.

2. Do not spray repellent into eyes, lips or nasal membranes.

3. Apply DEET repellent on arms, legs and other exposed areas but never under clothing.

4. Once inside, wash treated skin with soap and water.

5. Citronella candles and repellents containing citronella can help, but their range is limited.

Herbals such as cedar, geranium, pennyroyal, lavender, cinnamon and garlic are not effective.

Keeping mosquitoes away

1. Limit outdoor activity at dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.

2. Keep windows and door screens in good condition.

3. Empty water from children’s wading pools, toys, plant saucers, old tires, buckets and other containers where water may stand and mosquitoes may breed.

4. Empty and refill pet watering dishes daily and rinse bird baths twice weekly.

5. Clean clogged gutters.

6. Replace porch lights with yellow light bulbs that will attract fewer insects.

7. Fill tree holes and depressions left by fallen trees with dirt or sand.

SOURCES: Alabama Department of Public Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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