CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - The Coastal Health District confirms one West Nile Virus- associated death and two other human cases of the virus in Chatham County.
"You need to be aware of the fact that the West Nile Virus is definitely in our bird and mosquito population, and any of us are at risk for developing it," said Dr. Lawton Davis, director of the Coastal Health District, said.
These three are the first human cases of West Nile in the county and the Coastal Health District this year. Dr. Davis said all three people with the virus are adults, and the person who died was over 65.
Mosquitoes in the county have tested positively for the virus since July, but the health department said these are the first human cases in Chatham County in several years. Chatham County's Mosquito Control Director Jeff Heusel with lots of mosquitoes testing positively for the virus this year, it's not surprising we now have human cases.
"The mosquito testing that we're doing, if anything, the fact that we do have human cases just re-emphasizes the fact that our mosquito testing is giving us a good early warning system," Heusel said.
Heusel said the virus is cyclical. In Chatham County, he said 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2017 have been more active, but West Nile has only been in the United States since 1999. He said that isn't a lot of time to study the virus to figure out what years could be worse than others.
"We just have to deal with it on that cyclic basis, and the trick is learning what the cyclic basis is and when we're going to start seeing it," he said.
Dr. Davis said about 80 percent of people who get West Nile, never know they have it. He said about 20 percent get flu-like symptoms and 1 in 150 get a serious illness, like encephalitis.
"It can cause a host of other neurological problems," he said. "It can be very, very devastating."
Statewide, there have been a total of 31 confirmed human cases of West Nile Virus and five deaths.
Heusel said Downtown, Midtown and the Southside of Savannah have been "hot zones" for mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus, but said Chatham County Mosquito Control has collected positive samples throughout the county.
He didn't know where in the county the three people were bitten, and said it's not important with West Nile to locate where an individual was bitten like it is with Chikungunya or Zika.
"It really doesn't matter," he said. "That's pretty much been the case with most of the mosquito-borne diseases we deal with right now. It's not so much the fact that you have a human case here or there. It's the fact that we've got it circulating in the bird population as well as the mosquito population."
With it circulating, both the health district and mosquito control were already working at enhanced levels to try to prevent human West Nile cases.
"West Nile Virus revved us up, and then Zika kind of put us in overdrive," Dr. Davis said. "We're sort of staying in that mode."
Heusel said the human cases aren't surprising and show their sampling gave an early heads up about the virus being in our area. He says everyone should take those early signs seriously and take precautions.
According to the Coastal Health District, mosquitoes that carry WNV are more likely to bite during the evening, night, and early morning. Wearing EPA-approved insect repellent containing at least 20-30 percent DEET will help keep mosquitoes away, and eliminating standing water around the home and yard will help stop them from breeding.
The Coastal Health District also said the public should remember 5Ds of mosquito bite prevention to protect themselves:
- Dusk/Dawn – Avoid dusk and dawn activities during the summer when mosquitoes are most active.
- Dress – Wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and pants to reduce the amount of exposed skin.
- DEET – Cover exposed skin with an insect repellent containing the DEET, which is the most effective repellent against mosquito bites.
- Drain - Empty any containers holding standing water - buckets, barrels, flower pots, tarps - because they are breeding grounds for virus-carrying mosquitoes.
- Doors – Make sure doors and windows are in good repair and fit tightly, and fix torn or damaged screens to keep mosquitoes out of the house.