Mosquitoes and threat of West Nile return

Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 9:46 PM CDT
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Avoiding COVID-19 this spring has been a challenge, but now we are faced with the additional challenge of mosquitoes bugging us once again. “These pesky insects have been spotted in our communities already and can be carriers of West Nile virus, a potentially serious illness,” said Michele Bever, executive director for South Heartland District Health Department (SHDHD).

The Culex mosquito species is a common carrier of West Nile in this region of Nebraska. Mosquitoes become infected by biting (feeding on) an infected bird and can transmit the virus to other birds and horses, as well as humans.

As part of Nebraska’s West Nile surveillance program, South Heartland staff started trapping mosquitoes the last week of May in order to identify risk of West Nile in our district. “Mosquitoes collected in our traps are sorted and tested at the State Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) lab in order to identify if they are infected with West Nile virus,” Bever said. “Mosquito trapping will continue through the summer and will end in early fall.”

Dead birds may be a sign that West Nile virus is circulating between the birds and the mosquitoes in a particular area. DHHS is not testing birds this year, however, starting June 1, the South Heartland District Health Department (SHDHD) will accept reports of dead birds found in Adams, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster Counties. Residents may contact the SHDHD at 402-462-6211 or toll free at 1-877-238-7595 to report a dead bird and should be prepared to report the location where the bird was found and species of bird.

“It is difficult to predict hotspots for transmission or how many Nebraskans will be infected this season,” said Jessica Warner, SHDHD disease surveillance coordinator. “Last year, 32 Nebraskans were infected with West Nile virus during the summer months,” she said.

The most Nebraskans infected by West Nile was 2,366 cases in 2003 and that year also brought 29 deaths due to West Nile illness.

Warner said that most people (4 out of 5) who are infected with West Nile virus do not show any symptoms at all, but there is no way to know ahead of time whether you will be one of these lucky ones. More severe cases of West Nile illness may require hospitalization to receive supportive treatment and may be fatal.

“Typically, 20% of people infected with West Nile virus experience mild symptoms consisting of fever, headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach, and back. These symptoms can last from just a few days to several weeks. Most people with mild symptoms recover on their own but for others, the symptoms may last for weeks or months,” Warner said.

Warner encourages residents to protect themselves from West Nile illness by reducing the mosquito population and by protecting themselves from mosquito bites.

“Now is great time to assess our home environments,” Warner said. “First of all, eliminate any areas where mosquitoes may breed, which includes standing water.”

The health department recommends dumping standing water from anything that might serve as a container: flower pots, gutters, tires, buckets, etc. Drill a drainage hole in tire swings and frequently (at least weekly) empty and replace the water in outdoor pet bowls, children’s wading pools, or bird baths.

Second, keep mosquitoes out of your house. Install screens or ensure that the screens on your windows and doors are intact and repair any gaps where mosquitoes could get in.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests several additional ways to prevent mosquito bites. When you are outdoors, be sure to wear mosquito repellent containing DEET, or other insect repellent that is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and follow the directions on the package for proper use. Between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active, wear long sleeves and pants or consider staying indoors.

Warner reminds residents about the four “D”s of effective prevention: Dusk to dawn (avoid outdoor activity or take extra care to protect yourself), Dress Appropriately (long sleeves, pants, socks when outside during the peak hours and locations of mosquito activity), DEET (in your mosquito repellent), Drain (any standing water).

“Remind your family members and friends of these easy steps to ‘Fight the Bite’,” Warner said.

For more information call South Heartland District Health Department at 402-462-6211 or toll free at 1-877-238-7595 or visit the SHDHD website: