It’s important for Mainers to be informed about West Nile virus, which was first detected in the state in a bird in 2001. People of all ages can get the disease if they are bitten by an infected mosquito, but those over the age of 50 face the greatest risk of severe disease.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the presence last week of West Nile in a mosquito pool in Gorham, in Cumberland County. It was the second pool this year to test positive for the virus — the first was in the town of Lebanon, in York County — and more positive tests are likely. Recently, a Pennsylvania woman carrying the virus visited Maine and was treated here, though it’s believed she contracted the virus outside the state.
Even though there has been no documented case of someone contracting West Nile in Maine, you should know how to prevent yourself from becoming the first case. The Maine CDC lists ways to protect yourself: Use an EPA-registered mosquito repellent when outdoors, particularly at dawn and dusk; wear long sleeves, pants and socks when you can; repair rips on screens; and get rid of standing water that might be in flowerpots, discarded tires or clogged roof gutters.
Only one in five people who are bitten by an infected mosquito develop symptoms — and remember, not all mosquitoes carry the disease — but there is no treatment or human vaccine for West Nile. Symptoms include fever, headache and body aches, sometimes with a skin rash and swollen lymph glands. In severe cases — which occur in only 1 in 150 infected people — you can suffer from disorientation, coma, seizures, paralysis and sometimes death. You can’t get the disease from close contact with someone infected with it.
Though not in Maine, the U.S. as a whole has seen a significant increase in the number of West Nile cases this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far 1,221 have been documented, with 43 deaths. That’s three times the average number of cases for this time of year. Most of the cases were in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota and Oklahoma. You have the greatest risk of contracting West Nile between May and October.
Just be vigilant about the possibility of risk. Stay educated about where infected mosquitoes have been found, and protect yourself as best you can. If you get sick, see a doctor. It’s important for the public to know where there are cases, to ensure a continued heightened awareness. A significant part of alleviating worry about West Nile is to be prepared and know what symptoms to look for.