DEET Yourself: 2020 West Nile Virus Season Means Business

Mosquitoes suck.
Mosquitoes suck. Photo by Michel Boulé on Unsplash
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit North Texas, many have begun to spend more time outdoors to cope with emotional distress. More than 8 in 10 Americans say they venture outside on a daily or weekly basis, according to an August survey by the Pew Research Center.

That’s all fine and good, but just remember that there’s another disease buzzing around: the mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

“If someone is sitting out these days because of the coronavirus, kind of gathering and drinking or enjoying talking, that increases the chance, of course, getting exposed to the [West Nile] virus,” said Dr. Joon Lee, an associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

On top of COVID-19 and the West Nile virus, flu season is almost here. With all three running amok, one could easily turn into a twitchy hypochondriac à la Woody Allen. But public health experts say the illnesses are relatively preventable if people take the proper safety precautions.

Last week, Dallas County Health and Human Services reported its fourth West Nile-related death of the 2020 season and its 10th human case. This season is worse than the previous couple, said director Dr. Philip Huang.

It’s not as bad as 2012, though, when Dallas County had the most West Nile cases nationwide with 19 deaths, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The silver lining, if there is any, is that around 80% of people who contract West Nile are asymptomatic, Huang said. The remainder will experience symptoms such as a mild fever, and fewer than 1% of people will have a severe, neuro-invasive disease that leads to death.

“When it is bad, it’s a very serious thing,” Huang said. “That’s why people need to protect themselves from mosquito bites.”

West Nile virus is the most common mosquito-borne disease in the United States, Lee said. There is not currently a vaccine to prevent it nor medications to treat it.

This September has been unseasonably cool, Lee said, and mosquitoes are repelled by cold weather. Regardless, people should exercise caution when going outside, he said.

“Even when temperatures cool down, [mosquitoes are] kind of looking for a warmer place, warmer bodies, because they feel cold, right?” he said. “They’re attracted to warm objects, so we have to be careful until the end of the season.”

West Nile season peaks in September and cases will continue to wane in the colder months, according to WebMD.

Huang said people should practice the “four Ds” to prevent from catching the West Nile virus.
  • DEET yourself: Wear insect repellent whenever you’re outside
  • Dress accordingly: Wear loose, long and light-colored clothes outdoors
  • Dusk ‘til dawn: Try to limit time spent outdoors since mosquitoes are active at all hours
  • Drain: Dump standing water around your home so that mosquitoes can’t lay their eggs.

“If someone is sitting out these days because of the coronavirus, kind of gathering and drinking or enjoying talking, that increases the chance, of course, getting exposed to the [West Nile] virus." - Dr. Joon Lee

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When one season ends, another begins: Flu season will start in October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s some evidence, though, that this year’s flu might not be as bad as years past.

In the Southern Hemisphere, for instance, the 2020 flu season was more mild than normal, according to NPR. That may be a result of mask mandates and physical distancing measures that were set in place to combat the coronavirus.

Lee said that such COVID-19 preventative measures could be effective in stymying flu transmission here too, but more evidence needs to be gathered to know for sure. Everyone should get a flu shot, he said.

Some have speculated that coronavirus spread may slow in colder months, but Lee said it’s too soon to tell. In the winter, people will want to spend time in the warm indoors where the risk of transmission is higher, he said.

The holidays will present a whole new set of challenges, Lee said; families nationwide will be congregating in large groups. Although they may not have seen one another for a long time, people still need to practice COVID-19 preventative measures, Lee said.

As much as everyone wants the virus to go away, Lee said it’s unlikely to anytime soon.

“It’s going to be hard for a lot of people really because it’s going to be so long,” he said. “Most likely we have to do this until an effective and safe vaccine is available, which should be sometime next year. That’s the hard part.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter