West Nile bites Houston, precautions taken
Published: Friday, August 31, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 31, 2012 15:08
“Fight the bite!” is the slogan of Houston’s official West Nile virus prevention campaign, prompted by an increased number of West Nile cases in the past few months.
The City of Houston Health and Human Services Department has reported 20 cases of West Nile in Houston for 2012, three of which resulted in death. All three deaths were patients over 55 years of age. West Nile is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause swelling of the brain or lining of the brain or spinal cord, as reported in a Health and Human Services Department fact sheet.
The Health and Human Services Department has kept records of West Nile cases in Harris County since 2002, when more than 75 cases of West Nile were reported.
The Houston Chronicle reported that the outbreak in Dallas this year is even more serious; with more than 200 reported cases and 10 deaths, the city has declared a Public Health Emergency.
The nationwide Center for Disease Control also keeps records of human West Nile cases. By the CDC’s count, Texas is the state with the highest number of human cases and deaths this year with 537 and 19, respectively. Mississippi has the next-highest number of cases at 79. With 1,118 cases and 41 deaths nation-wide, Texas makes up nearly 50 percent of all cases and deaths in the United States.
Baylor College of Medicine Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Tropical Medicine Kristy Murray does research on the West Nile virus and how it affects humans.
Murray said that the increased cases in Texas this year can be attributed to climate conditions.
“The hotter it gets, the more quickly the virus replicates in the mosquitoes,” Murray said. “Along with the severe drought, the mild winter, and the rain in the spring, these climate conditions created a perfect storm for the virus infection to occur.”
Harris Country Department of Public Health Media Specialist Martha Marquez said that the first West Nile positive mosquito in Harris County this year was found in late May. Preventative mosquito spraying by Harris County Mosquito Control began immediately afterward in early June.
“We have a surveillance control program with traps throughout the county. Mosquitoes from these traps are then brought into a laboratory where they are tested for West Nile,” Marquez said. “Once the positive cases are identified, spraying occurs in designated areas.”
Marquez said that the spray kills mosquitoes upon contact, and that ground spraying is currently continuing throughout Harris County.
An email was sent from Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby to the Rice community on Aug. 22 noting the Harris County spraying and detailing steps for prevention. Advice in the email included staying indoors at dawn and dusk, wearing loose, long-sleeved shirts and pants and using insect repellents that contain DEET, Picardin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535.
Brown College junior Shaurya Agarwal said that he has noticed fewer mosquitoes on-campus this year.
“After that infestation that we had last year, I haven’t noticed them being particularly bad on campus this year,” Agarwal said. “I also think that people are being more careful because of the talk about West Nile. I’ve seen people using bug spray more often.”
Director of Rice Health Services Dr. Mark Jenkins said that the Rice campus should have a low risk rate for West Nile-carrying mosquitoes and that there have been no reported cases among Rice students this year.
“Especially with how well the grounds are kept at Rice, West Nile has a low chance of spreading on campus,” Jenkins said. “West Nile is typically found in areas with less upkeep, so the groundskeepers have been working to eliminate standing water and other mosquito breeding groundson-campus.”
According to researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine, the West Nile virus can sometimes become a long-term illness with lingering symptoms.
Rice bioengineering Ph.D. student Meaghan Bond has been living with West Nile for almost 10 years. She said she first contracted the disease in 2003 when she was 15 years old at a summer camp in Tyler, Texas.
“At first, I was tested for everything from lupus to lyme disease to thyroid disorders,” Bond said. “In 2007, I found a doctor in Lubbock who had had West Nile himself. He recognized my symp- toms, and when I was tested for West Nile, it came back positive.”
Bond said that she still suffers from headaches, fatigue and a weak immune system. She works with Kristy Murray at BCM as a participant in a case study of more than 200 West Nile patients.
Murray, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Tropical Medicine, said that her research focuses on the lingering effects of West Nile.
"[West Nile] can create a chronic and debilitating disease in some cases," Murray said. "Because the acute phase of the virus attacks the central nervous system, it can create potential long-term, invasive outcomes like kidney decease."
Murray said that another goal of the case study is to identify patients earlier on in the diagnosis.
"Typically people aren't diagnosed with West Nile until a few weeks into the infection," Murray said. "We're trying to encourage more doctors to test for West Nile because many of them don't."