By Merritt Melancon
West Nile virus usually peaks between Aug. 15 and Sep. 15 in Georgia, but this year doctors are seeing an earlier start.
Entomologists and public health officials are worried that a record number of Georgians will be sickened with West Nile virus this year.
“We're just entering peak mosquito season - and certainly peak West Nile virus season - and it will keep going on until the days start cooling off and getting shorter," said Elmer Gray, a public health entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Nationwide, public health officials have reported 693 West Nile virus diagnoses in almost 40 states, with Texas bearing the brunt of the outbreak with 537 cases and 19 deaths as of Aug. 22, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Older people and people with suppressed immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the disease, but it has seriously sickened some healthy people, too. About 1 in 5 of the people exposed to the virus through a mosquito bite will show symptoms. Many people assume they have a summer cold or flu and will go undiagnosed, Gray said.
The severity of this year's outbreak has to do with the weather. "The species that transmits West Nile virus - the southern house mosquito - actually does well when it is drier," Gray said.
Southern house mosquitoes often develop in storm drains, which make better homes when they're not flooded with storm water. The Georgia cities that have seen the most West Nile virus activity over the years are those with older storm sewer systems, like Albany, metro Atlanta and older parts of Savannah and Augusta.
Birds - the southern house mosquito's favorite prey and the main carriers of West Nile virus - also crowd around water sources during a time of drought.
Wearing light-colored clothing will help keep mosquitos at bay, but the most effective thing is to use insect repellent whenever outside in a mosquito-prone area - like on a ball field, out in the yard, in fields or out in the woods.
Gray prefers products with DEET because they have been tested and proven safe for children as young as two months old. There are several other commercially available, EPA approved repellents, like picaridin, lemon eucalyptus oil and IR3535.
Cut down mosquito population by getting rid of anything around your home that could hold standing. Larvacidal briquettes can be used in fishponds, rain barrels or rain gardens that can't be emptied.
For more information about West Nile virus, visit Georgia's Public Health website at http://health.state.ga.us.
- Merritt Melancon is writer with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.