If you've heard, read or seen anything about the West Nile virus recently, it likely was related to Dallas, a city so hard hit by the viral illness that the mayor has declared a state of emergency. There's reason for the rare proclamation. Dallas accounts for about a quarter of the reported West Nile virus cases in the United States, and 10 people there have died from the disease. The situation there and across the country is likely to become more dire.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports cases in 43 states, including Tennessee and Georgia. Almost 700 cases of the disease, including 26 fatalities, had been reported as of Tuesday. That's the most since 2004, though public health experts say current numbers are probably low. That's because hundreds, maybe thousands, of mild cases typically are unreported.
In its mild form, the virus causes aches, chills and fever. In its more virulent form, it can lead to dangerous complications, including often fatal meningitis or encephalitis. A majority of this year's cases -- almost 60 percent -- are the more dangerous type. That understandably has spurred action by officials.
In hard-hit Dallas, controversial aerial spraying of pesticides to combat mosquitos has been approved, but there is considerable worry about such widespread use of pesticides. Some fear spraying will trigger people's allergies and asthma or upset the ecosystem by killing bees, some fish and beneficial insects such as moths. Those are legitimate concerns, but Dallas' mayor says he'd rather spray that "have any more deaths on my conscience because we didn't take action."
Elsewhere, the CDC, community and state health departments are stepping up testing and public service and educational campaigns. In Tennessee, three cases have been reported -- two in West Tennessee and another in the northeast section of the state. Nearly a dozen have been reported in Georgia. More are expected, but conditions here are not quite as hospitable for the disease-carrying mosquitos as in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and California, where a majority of the cases have been reported.
In those regions, relatively warm winters followed by abnormally hot, dry weather have proved favorable for explosive population growth in the type of mosquito that carries the virus. The result: large numbers of infected insects that can transmit the disease to humans.
There are preventative measures. Getting rid of standing water and trimming weeds, grass and bushes where mosquitos breed and live can reduce their presence. Limiting outdoor activities between dusk and dawn, when mosquitos are most active, and using a repellent that contains DEET helps, too. Those steps won't eliminate the virus, but they can help slow its spread.
The public often fails to heed public health bulletins, warnings and alerts. Doing so in the case of West Nile virus could put one's health and life at risk.