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Beware the Bite

First human West Nile case for 2007 reported in Springfield.

The Fairfax County Health Department has detected the West Nile Virus again this year, a fact that many might ignore because of its persistent reoccurrence since 2000. However, the first confirmed human case of 2007 has come far earlier during the summer than expected, making health officials unsure of what to predict for the coming months.

On July 10, positive test results from the state's Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services in Richmond confirmed that a 72-year-old man from Springfield had contracted the virus.

In 2006, the West Nile virus was discovered on Aug 31, more than a month later than was detected this year. "The time of year [of detection] was really very strange. It just goes to show that West Nile is still out there and we need to be more aware of it," said Dr. Jorge Arias, supervisor for the county's Disease Carrying Insects Program.

In addition to the earlier discovery of the illness, the virus was contracted in Springfield, a good distance away from where it was detected in several mosquitoes under the Fairfax County West Nile Surveillance Program. "Over the years there has been no correlation of location and human infection because there are cases of West Nile all over the county," said Arias.

This particular case was the 21st reported human infection in Fairfax County. The first cases were discovered in birds and horses, and eventually in humans in 2003. Overall, two fatalities have been attributed to the West Nile Virus in Fairfax County.

The number of cases reported is understated, however, due to the nature of the infection. "Eighty percent of those carrying the virus show no symptoms and the majority of the remainder have flu-like symptoms. Only one percent have more severe cases of the disease, resulting in meningitis or encephalitis," said Arias.

FAIRFAX COUNTY Health Department's Environmental Health staff are taking a proactive approach in resisting the threat of the West Nile virus by treating over 30,000 storm drains with a chemically-safe larvacide to prevent mosquito breeding. These treatments typically run from May to October and help to reduce the mosquito population.

Members of the public have several ways to protect themselves by using preventative measures suggested by the Fairfax County Health Department. "It is vitally important for people to eliminate mosquito breeding areas around their homes and protect themselves against mosquito bites using a mosquito repellent," said Gloria Addo-Ayensu, Fairfax County Health director.

People should also wear long, loose, light-colored clothing and should try to avoid the outdoors when mosquitoes are more active. Those over the age of 50 should especially take heed, because people at that age are more susceptible to the more severe cases of the West Nile virus.

In addition to wearing insect repellent, homeowners can prevent the problem from the root by removing breeding areas that appear in common places in the backyard. Mosquito larvae flourish in stagnant water, and only need several spoonfuls to survive. Containers such as buckets, wheelbarrows, potted plant trays, and tires are ideal places for mosquito breeding, so should be turned over or emptied regularly. Tarps, gutters, and corrugated pipes are other sources of accumulated water that should be tipped and allowed to drain.

Bird baths, ponds without fish, and un-chlorinated pools should be protected with larvacides. The Disease Carrying Insects Program recommends bacillus thuringiensis, a larvacide that is harmless to humans and animals. Moving streams are of no concern, however, because mosquitoes can only develop in standing water.

Since no vaccines or anti-viral drugs exist for the West Nile virus, prevention is vital. Arias emphasized the importance of taking the personal responsibility of protecting oneself. "Whether it be DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or whatever repellent you prefer, you need to protect yourself. I can't emphasize that enough."