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Northeast Georgia Health System has three cases of West Nile virus - Here's how you can try to avoid it

Three people have been treated for the mosquito-borne West Nile virus since late July at Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia Health System.

Two of the patients — one treated in July and the other in August — eventually went home and recovered, spokeswoman Michelle Oleson said.

The third patient was discharged to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, The Times learned Sunday, Oct. 7. The Shepherd Center treats people with spinal cord and brain injuries.

The number of cases at NGHS “is a little higher than what we’ve seen over the last four years,” said Sandy Bozarth, the system’s manager of infection prevention and control.

She noted the area may experience more cases of West Nile “if we’ve had a rainy season and there’s more standing water.”

Still, the higher number of serious cases “doesn’t necessarily mean more people have West Nile,” Bozarth said. “Many people can have this illness and be symptom-free or have very minimal symptoms.”

She said “a large number do not even realize they have it. At most they may have a headache, body aches, that type of thing. They don’t get tested, so we don’t know they ever had it.”

About 1 in 5 people who are infected develop a fever and other symptoms, while about 1 out of 150 infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, illness, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control. 

People more prone to get sicker are those who already have other medical conditions or illnesses, Bozarth said.

Symptoms of severe illness include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis, according to the CDC.

Milder forms of the virus can last a few days to several weeks, and symptoms “usually go away on their own,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

If the virus enters the brain, however, it can be life-threatening. It may cause inflammation of the brain or inflammation of the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, or meningitis, the NIH says. A physical exam, health history and laboratory tests can diagnose it.

There are no vaccines to prevent West Nile virus.

But there are ways to ward off contact with potentially infectious mosquitoes.

“It’s just common sense,” Bozarth said.

Don’t be near standing water and make sure there’s no standing water on your property, “particularly dusk to dawn,” she said. “That’s when the mosquitoes carrying this virus tend to bite.”

Also, “make sure to put on bug spray,” Bozarth said.

The CDC recommends bug repellents that have been registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Typically, they are “proven safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women,” according to the agency.

West Nile basics

  • Number of cases: Hard to determine, as many get a symptom-free case of the virus and aren’t tested for it.
  • Serious cases: Affects about 1 in 150 infected people.
  • Symptoms: Body aches in mild form; higher fever and paralysis, among others, in severe cases.
  • Prevention: No vaccines are available, so spraying for mosquitoes, using bug repellent and avoiding standing water are good deterrents.