Pet Talk: Avoid contracting West Nile virus from mosquitoes

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas—Annoying little mosquitoes not only can aggravate and leave an itchy bite for a week, but they could also put you or your horse at risk for West Nile Encephalitis. But there are ways to stop the itching, learn more about how you can get it, the symptoms to look for and ways to prevent contracting West Nile.

West Nile Encephalitis, also known as a bird disease, is technically an inflammation of the brain. It is called a bird disease because, contrary to what many people believe, birds are the natural hosts of the disease.

While many people think mosquitoes are the hosts, they only serve as intermediate hosts and transmit the disease from birds to people and horses.

“While over 100 species of birds host the disease, the most susceptible are blue jays, crows and hawks,” says Dr. Floron Faries, a veterinarian at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University. “Once a mosquito bites an infected bird, it takes 10 to 14 days for the disease to get into its salivary glands. It is not until after this time period that a mosquito can transmit the disease to people and horses. Cats, dogs, and other animals can get the infection, but do not show symptoms.”

There are two vaccinations available for horses. Recombitex is a vaccine that should be administered yearly and another, Innovator, twice a year. Although there are currently no vaccinations for people, there are plenty of ways to lower your chances of contracting the disease.

“Don’t depend on the city to fog out mosquitoes. Be proactive when it comes to prevention,” says Faries.

“I recommend controlling stagnant water by getting rid of junk laying around. Mosquitoes reproduce in small containers of water, such as cans, jars and pots. Also, wear long clothes if you must be outside during the hours of dusk and dawn, and use plenty of mosquito repellant that contains DEET.”

The chances of infected people or horses showing any symptoms of the brain disease are only about 1 percent. It can take anywhere from two weeks to six months to die or recover. Of those horses that do become sick, only about 30 percent will result in death, Faries says. Only 6 percent of people who develop the disease will die.

Symptoms are similar to that of rabies. Depression, muscle twitching, weak limbs, and walking problems are common. Horses usually stand up by raising their head, putting weight on the front legs, and finally standing on all four. When encephalitis is present, the back legs are usually too weak to put weight on, and the horse ends up sitting like a dog, Faries explains.

“You can’t just assume the diagnosis, though. If these symptoms are present, it might not even be West Nile,” says Faries. “The horse could also have rabies, Eastern equine encephalitis or Western equine encephalitis. Laboratory tests should be taken to be sure which disease is present.”

West Nile made its first American appearance in 1999. After it was diagnosed in sick flamingos at a New York zoo, word spread quickly that the disease in migratory birds had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In only three years, West Nile moved south and west and made its first Texas exposure on the west side of Houston in Katy.

Faries says that nearly a decade after the initial scare, the disease has now been found in 48 of the 50 states.

from the Aug 15-21, 2007, issue

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