Kids and West Nile Virus

Are your children at risk?

Neighborhood Mosquito Spraying.
Neighborhood mosquito spraying is common during West Nile virus season. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Unless you live in an area that has been severely affected by the West Nile virus, you might think it is some exotic illness that only affects people in Egypt.

Unfortunately, the virus has spread from where it was first discovered in Uganda and Egypt to Europe, Asia and most recently, the United States.

Kids and West Nile Virus

Since it was first found in the North Eastern US in 1999, the West Nile virus has worked its way westward, so that in 2002, there were confirmed human cases in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and California.

In 2003, the CDC reported that the West Nile virus has been found in 46 states around the US. The only states without any reported cases in 2003 were Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska. And last year, West Nile virus infections were reported in all 48 states of the Continental United States.

Other West Nile virus facts:

  • In 2003 there were 9,862 cases of West Nile virus related human illness confirmed to CDC, including 264 deaths.
  • In 2002 there were 4,156 cases of West Nile virus related human illness confirmed to CDC, including 284 deaths.
  • Since 1999, nearly 40,000 people in the US have gotten sick with West Nile virus.
  • Cases occur primarily in the late summer or early fall, with a peak in mid-August.
  • Although the West Nile virus has now been found in all 48 states of the Continental United States, in 2012, two-thirds of all cases were reported from six states (Texas, Louisiana, South Dakota, Mississippi, Michigan, and Oklahoma), with 40% from just Texas alone.
  • In 2014, there were 2,205 cases and 97 deaths.

There were a total of 5,674 cases of West Nile virus infections in the United States in 2012. This includes 2,969 neuroinvasive cases (meningitis or encephalitis) and 286 deaths.

Parents who are worried about West Nile, sometimes to the point of not letting their kids go outside to play, should keep in mind that of the 5,674 cases in 2012, only 210 were in children and teens less than age 18.

Preparing for West Nile Virus Season

Before West Nile season starts, it is a good idea to get ready and learn how to control mosquitoes around your home, avoid mosquito bites, use insect repellent properly, and learn what your community is doing to control mosquitoes.

You should also report dead birds to your state and local health department, as they can be a sign that West Nile virus is circulating in your area. Birds can also get infected with the West Nile virus, and some, especially crows and jays, can die of the infection. Although you can't get the West Nile virus from one of these sick birds, mosquitoes can become infected by biting them and can then bite you or your children.

West Nile Virus Symptoms

Fortunately, very few people who become infected with the West Nile virus will develop serious symptoms. The most common West Nile virus symptoms, which usually develop 3-14 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito, are similar to many other viral infections and include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • body aches
  • skin rash
  • swollen lymph glands

More seriously, the West Nile virus can cause encephalitis, with 'headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, paralysis, and, rarely, death.'

There is no specific treatment or vaccine for West Nile virus infections, but if you suspect that you or your child has become infected, you should see your doctor. An antibody test can help to confirm an infection, and may be done if your child has severe symptoms. Keep in mind that most people with mild symptoms will not need testing.

So are your children at risk from the West Nile virus?

No. Children aren't especially at high risk for West Nile virus infections (there have been relatively few reported cases in children under 19 years of age). Of the 4156 human West Nile Virus cases in 2002, only 130 were in children (about 3% of cases), and there were no deaths in children. However, since kids are often outside and are prone to being bitten by mosquitoes, you may want to take some steps to protect your children, including:

  • Making sure to keep as much of their skin covered with clothing as possible, including a long sleeve shirt, long pants, socks, and a hat.
  • Wearing light colored clothing, so as not to attract bugs.
  • Avoiding using any scented soaps or other products on your children, since the fragrances can also attract insects.
  • Using an insect repellent regularly. Commonly used insect repellents that can usually be safely used in children include those with less than 10% DEET, or others with citronella or soybean oil. New reports suggest that an insect repellent with 30% DEET is safe for kids too.
  • Using window and door screens to prevent insects from getting inside your house.
  • Empty standing water around your house where mosquitoes can breed.
  • Avoid outdoor activities during peak mosquito biting times, from dusk (early evening) to dawn (early morning).
Even if the West Nile virus hasn't yet been reported where you live, you might want to look for and report any dead birds that you find around your home, since they may be infected and this is often how the virus is first discovered in a new area. The species of birds that can become infected will depend on where you live, but American Crows and blue jays are the most common species of birds affected. If you find one of these dead birds or a large number of dead birds of any species, you should call your local health department.

In conclusion, while parents are understandably concerned about West Nile and mosquito bites, it is important to keep in mind it is typically people who are over 50 who are at higher risk to get severe West Nile disease symptoms.

Children are not at high risk for severe disease.

Taking precautions to avoid mosquito bites can lower their risk even more. Make sure your kids wear insect repellent and protective clothing and that you empty standing water around your home so that mosquitoes can't breed easily.
 

Sources:

CDC. West Nile Virus. Accessed July 2013.

CDC. West Nile Virus and Other Arboviral Diseases – United States, 2012.

CDC. 2013 West Nile Virus in the United States: Guidelines for Surveillance, Prevention, and Control.

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