Vermont Health Officials Prepapre for West Nile

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Julie Shumway

The staff of Middlebury College’s Parton Health Center has a new potential diagnosis to consider when students complain of headaches and fever: West Nile virus encephalitis.
This relatively new disease, first documented in 1937 in Uganda, has over the last 65 years worked its way across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and most recently, North America. The national Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports the first case of human and equine encephalitis appeared in the United States in 1999.
West Nile virus has infected an increasing number of states over the last three years. Until recently, Vermont had avoided following in the footsteps of states like New York, where 19 human cases were reported as of Sept. 9, 2002, and two deaths occurred from the disease. However, on Sept. 9, Vermont health officials reported treating a case of West Nile virus in a human.
According to the CDC’s official Web site on the virus, “West Nile virus encephalitis is an infection of the brain caused by the West Nile virus. West Nile virus first appeared in the United States in 1999, when at least 62 people in the New York City area got sick and seven people died.” The virus can only be transmitted through mosquito bites. Many of the mild symptoms of West Nile echo those of the common flu. It is only in more severe cases that a person may experience convulsions, coma, and in rare cases death.
Kathleen Ready, director of the Parton Health Center, said there is comforting news. “Most people infected with West Nile do not get ill,” she explained. About one out of every 150 people exposed to West Nile virus develop serious symptoms, she said. It is possible to have a mild case of West Nile and never know, as the symptoms are similar to other, more common, diseases.
Ready says most prevention centers on avoiding mosquito bites, since they are the only means of infection. To this end, she advised using DEET-containing insect repellant. Ready also recommended wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, to avoid bites. The most active time for mosquitoes is dusk to dawn, and Ready reminded students to limit their time outside at night and in the early morning.
The last line of defense is health care providers. “When students present themselves was ill, it’s up to us to think about [West Nile] as a possible reason,” Ready stated. The staff at Parton Health Center has added West Nile virus to their list of potential illnesses when a student enters with a fever or headache. However, she pointed out that since the symptoms are akin to the flu or meningitis, most people on campus are already aware of what to look and when to ask for help. There is a blood test available for those with symptoms of West Nile virus.
Noted Ready, there is no known correlation between one’s health and the chance of becoming infected with a severe form of West Nile.