As students engage in a barrage of pre-class parties and warm weather activities, many may be unaware of a dangerous menace lurking nearby — a mosquito potentially carrying the deadly West Nile virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that the recent outbreak of West Nile — which has now impacted 48 states, infected 1,590 humans and caused 65 deaths — may be the worst epidemic since the virus was first introduced to North America in 1999.
Texas is currently leading the nation with 981 confirmed cases as of Aug. 30, according to the Texas Department of Health Services. Mississippi holds the next highest number at 98, CDC numbers show.
Students at Rice University in Houston, Texas were notified on Aug. 22 that the county had started spraying insecticides in outdoor areas to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes, according to The Rice Thresher.
Mark Jenkins, Rice’s director of health services, said he believes students are at a low risk for infection, noting that the university has continued to take extensive measures to prevent spread of the virus.
“Especially with how well the grounds are kept at Rice, West Nile has a low chance of spreading on campus,” Jenkins told The Rice Thresher. “West Nile is typically found in areas with less upkeep, so the groundskeepers have been working to eliminate standing water and other mosquito breeding grounds on-campus.”
Mark Wilson, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said the disease is primarily transmitted by the culex genus of mosquitoes, which thrive in wet, warm conditions.
Wilson advised that students wear insecticides and ample clothing to make themselves less susceptible to mosquito bites, noting that environmental elements like weather and vegetation create varying conditions for the insects.
“Depending on the species of the mosquito, they’ll be more or less aggressive,” Wilson said. “If there’s more wind, they’ll be less likely to feed on you. If you’re closer to bushes, shrubbery, trees or other vegetation where they can both be protected and also nesting, then you’re probably more likely to face them.”
After contracting the disease, only about 20% of infected humans develop symptoms — which range from moderate to severe — according to Eden Wells, associate director of the Preventative Medicine Residency at Michigan’s School of Public Health.
Symptoms are often flu-like and include fatigue, headaches, vomiting and body aches. More serious cases can cause death or damage to the central nervous system, leading to paralysis or meningitis, Wells said. There are currently no treatments for the disease.
Wilson said despite the national influx of West Nile cases, students shouldn’t be concerned as long as they’re taking proper precautions.
“This is especially a problem of the elderly, so if you’re a student and you’re out at a party, your risk is probably low,” Wilson said. “I would worry much more about drinking too much then being infected with West Nile virus.”
Students have expressed a similar lack of concern about contracting the disease.
University of Michigan freshman Julia Paige said she hasn’t noticed many mosquitoes since she moved in recently, and hasn’t been affected.
“I guess I haven’t really been worried about it,” Paige said. “I’m a freshman, I just moved down, and there aren’t a lot of mosquitoes in my area, and I just don’t really get bitten by mosquitoes.”
Sreyas Antoni, a master’s student at Michigan, said that in his home country of India, mosquito-related viruses are occasionally a concern, and avoiding bodies of still water is key.
“I basically already know the preventive measures, putting on more clothing will never really help,” Antoni said. “What we do in India is we avoid swampy areas, we just try to avoid water being stagnant.”
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