Aside from my daily online duties, I work at the boathouse in Tyler State Park on weekends, renting canoes, sitting in the sun — and swatting bugs. Recently, a park ranger told me — mid swap — that some of the mosquitoes were infected with the West Nile virus, an infectious disease that can lead to inflammation of the brain, spinal cord, and, if left untreated, death. Of course, I immediately returned home to Google the hell out of this seasonal affliction, where I learned that thankfully, thus far, only one case of human infection has been reported in our state this season. Far from epidemic proportions. Still, the state monitors West Nile from May through late October, and Bucks and Delaware counties have had the highest number of West Nile-positive mosquito samples in all 67 counties for the past two years. But that’s no reason to hide inside this summer: We’ve got all the defenses you’ll need to bite back.
Know the symptoms. “We look at it from a preventative angle,” says Holli Senior, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. That’s because there is no vaccine or specific treatment for West Nile. Most people fully recover from the virus’ minor symptoms, including headache, body ache, fever, skin rash and swollen lymph glands. For the one percent of victims who face more serious health concerns — like high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation and convulsions — hospitalization may be in order, and treatments can range from ventilators to intravenous fluids.
Steer clear of stagnant water. It’s the main breeding ground for culex pipiens (the species most common in Pennsylvania) and other kinds of mosquitoes. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says puddles, gutters, spare tires, birdbaths, ponds, flowerpots and, yes, canoes, should all be constantly monitored for standing water. Kill off mosquito larvae in any standing water by picking up some “Bti” — a naturally occurring, human- and animal-friendly soil bacterium that doubles as a pesticide — at your local Lowe’s.
Buy better block. Just any old bug repellent will quit as soon as you start sweating. The CDC recommends a few long-lasting repellents that’ve been given the Environmental Protection Agency seal of approval. That means they’re safe to spray on your skin and your clothing (those suckers can bite right through a T-shirt). Some OK’d products — like OFF! — include DEET and Picaridin, active ingredients so foul-tasting for mosquitoes that you’ll be bug-free noticeably longer.
Check for positives in your area. The state’s West Nile Virus Surveillance Program — part of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection — keeps tabs on mosquitoes testing positive for West Nile county-by-county. If your county is listed as a danger zone, wear long sleeves when outside dusk through dawn — that’s when the most mosquitoes are out — and make sure you have screens in your doors and windows to keep them from flying around your living room — or breeding in your sink. Ick!
Report a dead bird. Protect your neighborhood one fallen feathered friend at a time. Once infected with West Nile, most birds die within a couple of days, so seeing a few birds belly-up along the curb during your morning run could be a sign that the virus is spreading to your area. Logon to the West Nile Virus Surveillance Program website and fill out the dead-bird testing form. It’ll prompt you with some specific questions about the fallen fowl you’ve found, like county, type of bird — crows, ravens and blue jays are the most common carriers of the virus — and number of birds found.