Drought extends risk of West Nile virus
The highest risk for contracting an insect-borne illness like West Nile or Eastern equine encephalitis occurs between August and early October, according to the Department of Community Health.
“We don’t see a rise in cases of West Nile until mid-August and this year is up from last year a lot,” said Angela Minicuci, public information officer for Community Health.
West Nile is spread by a mosquito species that easily reproduces in a warm, dry climate. With the little rainfall Michigan has had over the summer, the population of these mosquitoes has risen, said Minicuci.
More than 115 cases and at least six deaths have been confirmed so far this year. In 2011, there were 34 confirmed cases of West Nile.
“These numbers are the highest they have been since West Nile was reported in 2002 for the first time in Michigan,” Mincuci said.
With most of this year’s cases in the southern Lower Peninsula, residents further north seem to have a false sense of security, according to Thomas Buss, environmental health manager for the Grand Traverse County Health Department.
“We are telling everyone to take precautions. Just because we have not had a case yet doesn’t mean that will not change,” Buss said.
The case closest to Traverse City has been in Mason County.
Cathy Goike, public health educator for District Health Department #4, said, “Northern Michigan is notorious for mosquitoes. If people take necessary precautions, we should all be okay.”
The district covers Alpena, Cheboygan, Montmorency and Presque Isle counties.
“West Nile seems to go through cycles,” Goike said. “Michigan will have a high number of cases and then the next year the state will have none.”
Minicuci has been working with local health departments to give the public “precautionary tips” to prevent West Nile.
“People need to empty any standing water in bird baths or gutters. This just creates a breeding ground. Second, check and make sure window screens do not have any tears. Third, use bug repellant with DEET and lastly, avoid the outdoors at dusk and dawn,” she said.
Buss also recommends wearing proper clothing like long pants and sleeves outside around dawn and dusk.
The symptoms of Eastern equine encephalitis are like those of West Nile but much more severe.
With only one case reported so far in Michigan this year, Bridget Patrick, communications specialist at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said, “Michigan is on the right track.”
One mosquito species and many bird species spread the disease.
“The one case we have seen so far was in a puppy in Van Buren County,” Patrick said. “This puppy is a sentinel animal for us and now we can have people become more aware of Eastern equine encephalitis.”
Eastern equine encephalitis was first found in Michigan in the early 1980s, is rarely found in humans and affects mostly horses, said Patrick.
“This insect-borne disease is something most residents do not even know about and it is very fatal,” Patrick said. “That is why we are working hard to get the word out about all of the insect-borne diseases and to prevent their spread.”