West Nile and EEE a threat

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 16, 2005

Heavy rains wrought by Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis and the days of soaking rains are being blamed for a heightened alert level for Eastern Equine Enceph-alitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus - both mosquito borne illnesses which can be deadly.

Because of Dennis and a recent death from EEE in the state, local and state health officials are urging extreme precaution.

"We're on heightened alert - because of the rain, definitely," said Butler County Health Department Environmental Supervisor Terry Kyzar.

"The public is advised to make every effort to reduce exposure to mosquitoes in the aftermath of Hurricane Dennis," said John Kelliher, D.V.M and representative of the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Two human cases of EEE, one that resulted in the death of a south Alabama man, have been confirmed in the state following Dennis.

The recent death of an Escambia County man who passed away as a result of having EEE is the first confirmed 2005 death related to the illness, according to the department of health.

Another south Alabama resident, from Baldwin County, is currently recovering from the virus.

In addition, seven horses from Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile counties have contracted the disease.

Humans and horses are more likely than other mammals to contract the deadly viruses, officials say.

West Nile and EEE are both transmitted from birds to mosquitoes, and in turn, spread by mosquitoes to people and animals.

Stagnant water outdoors is one of the most common means of attracting mosquitoes.

"Recent rains and debris that may be keeping water from draining properly heightens the risk for additional human and horse exposures from mosquitoes," Dr. Kelliher commented.

Dr. Donald Williamson, Alabama State Health Officer, agreed, and urges people to take necessary steps to protect themselves.

"With the recent cases of EEE in horses and humans and the probability of the higher mosquito populations because of localized flooding, it is important that everyone take measures to protect themselves from mosquito-borne viruses such as EEE," Williamson said. "If you must be outside, use DEET-based repellents and proper clothing to minimize exposure."

Locally, Kyzar said it's imperative that citizens take extra measures to rid their yards and properties of standing water.

"Basically, all we can do is try to keep from raising mosquitoes around our houses," Kyzar said.

Bird baths, planters, buckets, barrels, fountains, animal food bowls and other containers should be properly monitored and cleaned often.

"We need to make sure we don't raise our own mosquitoes," Kyzar said, pointing out that many residents don't know that simple steps will likely rid a mosquito infestation.

Unlike some insects, mosquitoes usually do not travel far past the point of where they're bred, Kyzar explained.

"Most people are in fact raising the insects themselves and not even realizing it." However, he added, "Big winds like we just had will certainly blow them in."

While horses and people contract EEE and West Nile from mosquitoes, neither humans nor horses can spread the viruses to others.

Indications of the two diseases in infected people include escalating flu-like symptoms such as a high fever, headache, possible confusion, disorientation, tremors, stupor, convulsions, paralysis, coma and eventually death.

Sometimes, though, encephalitis - which is an inflammation of the brain - causes no symptoms in humans.

"People with encephalitis are (usually) sick enough that they will seek medical care and be hospitalized," a report from the state health department relays. "The seriousness of an illness may depend on a person's health and age."

Those younger than age 15 and older than 50 are considered to be at a higher risk.

"Under 15, their immune systems would not be as well developed," Kyzar explained. "In older people, you would have weakened immune systems. A strong immune system is a big plus."

Health agencies recommend that people practice the "five Ds" when it comes to prevention of mosquito borne illnesses - "Dusk, Dawn, DEET, and Drain."

Avoid being outside, if possible, during dusk and dawn, time periods when mosquitoes are most active.

Dress to cover your skin with protective clothing.

Protect bare skin with mosquito repellent that contains DEET.

Drain containers holding stagnant water, where mosquitoes are most likely to breed.

"EEE is one of the most dangerous mosquito-borne diseases in the U.S. for humans," state health officials report. "About one-third of people who become ill with EEE will die and another third survive but with mild to severe brain damage."

There's currently no vaccine available for people.

For horses, there is an approved vaccine, available at your veterinarian's office.

"Greater than 90 percent of unvaccinated horses that get EEE die," the state department of health says.

The City of Greenville currently has a mosquito-spraying program in effect.

The county, however, does not.

According to Kyzar, the reason for not having a program outside of the city limits is based in part on the impact the spray would have on vegetation, gardens and crops.

The spray used essentially kills all insects, including bees and others that are "helpful to agriculture."

"You can't kill all of the helpful insects," Kyzar said. "If you do, you couldn't grow any crops."

Anyone who has suspicions of West Nile Virus or EEE in their community, including the findings of dead birds, is urged to contact the Butler County Health Department at (334) 382-3154.