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Worst West Nile Virus season in OK history expected

August 24, 2012

As summer draws closer to it's end, school begins and the weather starts to show hints of changing, one wouldn't expect to hear that three lives have been claimed in Oklahoma after being infected with the West Nile Virus.

Last week the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported that the number of lives claimed had climbed to 3 as the WNV season begins. All three victims are reported to have been over the age of 75.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health reports that one person has died in Seminole County and two others have passed in Oklahoma County. Another 38 people have been hospitalized with the disease and countless others have tested positive. It is estimated that around 61 cases have been reported so far.

The heaviest effected counties in Oklahoma are: Tulsa County with 12 cases; Oklahoma County with 11 reported and two lives lost; Carter County with 9 reported cases; Pittsburgh County with 5 cases; Muskogee and Garfield counties with 2 cases each and Alfalfa, Bryan, Garvin, Grant Hughes, Payne and Pottawatomie counties all reporting 1 case and of course Seminole county who had one case that claimed a life.

State epidemiologists warn this summer could be the worst WNV season in Oklahoma history. The last severe outbreak was in 2007 when 20 Oklahomans died and 107 people became sick. The situation has become so serious, Gov. Mary Fallin is urging people to take precautions.

"West Nile virus is a serious disease that can be life-altering or even fatal," said Fallin. "Many of our fellow Oklahomans are now hospitalized with West Nile virus. Even though we are early into the season, at least 61 cases and three deaths have been reported in Oklahoma. The best way to prevent West Nile virus is to avoid mosquito bites."

State health experts say there are several simple ways to avoid mosquito bites: wear insect repellent containing an active ingredient such as 10% to 30% DEET; prevent items such as buckets and tarps from holding standing water; empty your outdoor pet's water bowl and refill daily; rinse, scrub, and refill birdbaths weekly; empty plastic wading pools weekly and store indoors when not in use; maintain swimming pools and outdoor hot tubs regularly as recommended by manufacturer; and store boats covered or upside down.

Learn more about protecting yourself from West Nile Virus: Symptoms of West Nile include things such as fever, body aches, headache and general fatigue, can mimic those of the flu. Other symptoms can include a rash on the torso and swollen lymph glands. The length of the illness can vary from just a few days to several weeks.

Because antibiotics do not work against viruses, Dr. Stephen Prescott, president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President, says West Nile just has to run its course.

“Doctors can treat the symptoms, but the virus has to run its course. It's most dangerous for the very young and very old or people with compromised immune systems, including lupus patients." Dr. Stephens says while the overall risk of contracting West Nile is low, people should still take precautions to avoid the disease.

Those most at risk are adults over the age of 50 due to their diminishing immune system, said state epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley.

Bradley said the Culex mosquito, which spreads the disease through its bite, is most active in the early morning and early evening hours. Fallin released a statement reminding residents to limit outdoor activities during those times and wear an insect repellent containing DEET.

“This disease has hit Oklahomans hard this year and unfortunately, those who seem to be most at risk are older citizens,” Fallin said. “Oklahomans are or will soon be gearing up for night-time outdoor activities like high school football games, athletic practices, lakeside camping, gardening and evening jogs.”

State officials warned residents should make sure window and door screens are not torn in order to keep the mosquitoes out. Standing water should also be drained or treated with a mosquito larvacide, and to keep gutters free of leaves and other debris.

There have now been 61 cases of the disease in 14 Oklahoma counties with 41 of the cases people 50 or older. Those infected have ranged in age from 12 to 90, the health department said.

The health department has projected that, at the current pace, there could be 200 or more cases of West Nile Virus in Oklahoma this year, nearly doubling the previous record of 107 cases in 2007 when eight people died of the disease.

Bradley said there can be a risk of exposure into early November.

From 2002, when the virus first appeared in Oklahoma, through 2011 there were 326 cases of the disease and 20 deaths.

Bradley said there have been at least two cases of the virus in horses this year, with one animal euthanized. There is no vaccine to prevent the virus in humans and no drugs to treat it, Bradley said, although there is a vaccine for horses.

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