With all the recent news about West Nile Virus, it can be hard to know just how concerned you need to be.
Human cases of West Nile Virus are the highest they've ever been since the Center for Disease Control began keeping track in 1999. Even in Cook Country, there's been a spike in the number of mosquitoes carrying the virus, as well as the number of human cases reported. That number of human cases is likely even higher, a local doctor tells us, because not everyone who has caught the virus will necessarily know it.
As of Aug. 24, a total of 29 cases of West Nile Virus in humans has been identified by the Cook County Department of Public Health, which doesn't include numbers from the city of Chicago, Oak Park, Evanston, or Stickney, which have their own health departments.
In order to find out just how prevalent West Nile Virus is, the symptoms to watch for and who is the most vulnerable to the disease, I talked with Dr. Iffat Ahmed of Adult Medicine Physicians of La Grange to get the straight facts.
The first thing Dr. Ahmed said we should know, is that 80 percent of people who get the virus will never even know they have it. The vast majority of all cases are asymptomatic, which means there are no symptoms. You might have contracted West Nile Virus earlier this summer (or last summer) and not even known it, because it's likely you never got sick.
Only an unlucky 20 percent of patients to catch the virus will show symptoms of it. Chances are, you'll probably just think you have the flu.
"A lot of the symptoms are like catching a cold, or getting the flu," Ahmed said.
These symptoms include fatigue, headaches, swollen glands and fever. One sign that it might not be the flu, though, is a light red rash on the stomach, chest and back.
According to Dr. Ahmed, most symptoms go away within two weeks, which lasts a little longer than the flu. If you find you're still feeling sick for a longer time than normal, it would be a good idea to head to the doctor and check things out, Ahmed said.
Because most people never have symptoms and only 20 percent get flue-like symptoms, many people are never even tested for West Nile Virus. The upside here, Ahmed said, is that once you've had it, you don't get it again.
"If you've had it, you won't get re-infected," Ahmed said. "You'll develop an immunity against it."
There's currently no vaccine available, Ahmed said, but that might change in future years if the problem of West Nile Virus continues to get worse. Because this is a recent phenomenon (the first case was reported in 1999), Dr. Ahmed said vaccinations are still in the trial phase. Because most people don't need it, it wouldn't make sense to start vaccinating everyone, but in the future, people who are vulnerable might get a vaccine.
Only a sliver of cases (about 1 in 150 patients) will show serious symptoms of the virus. Severe symptoms can include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. Neurological effects of the virus at this stage may be permanent and can lead to death.
By the time you're this bad off, you should be in the hospital anyways, Dr. Ahmed said, even if West Nile Virus isn't the cause.
What you really need to watch for, she recommended, are people who already have a lowered immune response. People over 55 years of age, young children, and those who are taking medications that reduce their immune response need to be more careful, and it would be wise to get checked out if you develop the symptoms.
Dr. Ahmed's most valuable bit of advice is just to try and avoid getting it. That sounds simple enough, right? Covering up if you're going to be in an environment with lots of mosquitoes, wearing insect repellant or keeping indoors in the early morning and evening can do a lot to keep you from getting bit and possibly contracting the disease.
But, she said, even with a pretty low risk of getting West Nile Virus and dying from it, if you start to feel under the weather, just come in for check up.
"We're never going to fault you for coming in, and it's good to be safe," Dr. Ahmed said.
That seems like pretty sound advice in any situation.