West Nile Virus spreads quickly in U.S.

West Nile virus is spreading so quickly and has hit 33 states, even as far west as South Dakota. Health officials believe it will reach California this year or next. Nobody knows how bad the mosquito-borne illness will get, but it's clear the virus that was first detected in New York City only three years ago has become a permanent summertime threat in most states.

Yet it's fairly easy to prevent: Spray on DEET-containing mosquito repellent when you go outdoors, and don't let puddles collect in flower pots, wading pools or other spots where mosquitoes can breed. West Nile can cause a potentially fatal brain inflammation. Anyone suffering such symptoms as a high fever, severe headache, confusion or difficulty thinking, stiff neck or severe muscle weakness should see a doctor right away. It has struck Americans as young as 16, but those most at risk are over 50.

For every case of West Nile encephalitis, 150 more people are thought to be mildly infected, not sick enough to see a doctor. They get a flu-like illness, with fever, headache and muscle pains, that last two or three days.

How does West Nile spread, It infects numerous types of wild birds, from house sparrows to crows. Mosquitoes spread it among birds, and then to people. So preventing mosquito bites is important. Some health departments track bird deaths in deciding when to spray insecticides, but the CDC says consumers can do a lot on their own:

-Wear a mosquito repellent containing DEET; those without DEET aren't nearly as effective. Follow the label's instructions carefully, especially when applying to children. A study concludes that insect repellents containing the chemical called DEET provide the best protection against mosquito bites. Bug sprays and lotions that rely on plant oils or another chemical don’t last as long and might require several applications, according to the report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

DEET, scientifically known as N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, has been on the market since 1957 and a 1998 review by the Environmental Protection Agency deemed normal use safe. Yet many consumers are reluctant to use DEET because it can irritate eyes and dissolve watch crystals, the frames of glasses and certain synthetic fabrics.

-Stay indoors at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.

-Get rid of mosquito breeding grounds on your property. Don't allow water to stand for more than two days. Mosquito eggs need only a little water to hatch, and many species don't fly long distances, so West Nile-bearing mosquitoes were probably born nearby. Typical culprits are empty paint cans collecting water under decks, unused pools, blocked rain gutters, flower pots and forgotten buckets.

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