Last week, Hall County recorded its first-ever human case of West Nile virus.
Dave Palmer, spokesman for District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, said in addition to the Hall case, there were also three cases of the mosquito-borne disease
reported in Habersham County.
Until last week, the 13-county Northeast Georgia district had only recorded one human case of the illness since the virus first appeared in the United States in 1999. That case occurred in a White County woman in 2003, and the patient eventually died from complications.
Palmer said the Hall case is a male patient who did not require hospitalization.
Two Habersham patients were male, the other female. Palmer said the woman and one of the men were hospitalized.
"They are all now recovering under doctors’ care," he said.
The West Nile virus is typically carried by birds and is transmitted when a particular species of mosquito feeds on an infected bird and then bites a human.
The disease is not passed directly from one person to another. Palmer said he had no explanation for the sudden cluster of cases in Habersham County.
West Nile is usually a mild, flu-like illness for young, healthy people, but in elderly patients or those with weak immune systems, it can cause life-threatening meningitis or encephalitis.
As of last week, 45 cases of West Nile had been reported in Georgia, compared to just 12 last year.
Palmer said Georgia had 26 cases in 2005, 28 in 2004 and 58 in 2003.
He suspects the drought, paradoxically, may be contributing to the increase in cases this year.
"When we have small rains that don’t flush out stagnant water and longer periods between rains, you get more standing water," Palmer said. "It takes about seven days between the time mosquito eggs are laid until they hatch."
Public health officials advise residents to remove any sources of standing water around their homes, such as bird baths, flower pots and old tires.
Palmer said people should also protect themselves outdoors by wearing long-sleeved clothing and using insect repellent. He said even though it’s almost November, people should not assume that mosquitoes are no longer a threat.
"It will take pretty cold weather to make the mosquitoes less active," he said.