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West Nile Virus

Alternative names: none

Type of infection: viral

Incubation period: 2 to 15 days

Mortality rate: less than 1%

Vector:  mosquito (various species)


First discovered in Uganda in 1937, the West Nile virus is named for the Nile region where it was found. Though not a major medical threat, there have been a number of outbreaks over the years, slowly expanding away from its African roots. Now the disease is found all through the world, including Canada and the USA.

Catching West Nile

You can catch West Nile virus from an infected mosquito bite, and it does not transmit directly between people. There is a little confusion because birds can also catch West Nile, and seeing a rash of dead birds is a common sign that the disease is in the area. So many people associate the birds with the spread of the disease, but you cannot catch West Nile from a bird (either dead or alive).

Another point to notice is that once a person has been infected with West Nile, they will not contribute to its spread via more mosquito bites. It only spreads to mosquitoes from bird hosts, not mammalian ones.

Signs and Symptoms

Most people who catch West Nile will show no symptoms at all. About 20% of people who contract the disease will have some debilitating but non-fatal symptoms, such as vomiting, joint and body pain, headache and diarrhea.

The problem is that in a very few people (usually less than 1% of infected individuals) can develop much more serious problems. West Nile can quickly lead to inflammation of the brain, such as encephalitis or meningitis. If the symptoms start to include stiffness in the neck, confusion and seizures, then medical attention will be necessary. Even so, these aren't necessarily fatal either, providing


There is no specific treatment for West Nile, other than the usual over-the-counter products to help with fever and body pain. If it progresses to the more severe level of brain inflammation, there is still no treatment other than keeping the patient hydrated and providing pain relief. Even at it's more severe, the mortality rate is still only 10%.


As with other diseases that travel by mosquito, you protect yourself by keeping the bugs away. When outside, wear long sleeves and pants. Use insect repellent generously and have good window screens in your home. There are no preventative vaccines available for West Nile.

Risk Assessment

Though some cases will be very serious, most are quite harmless so the potential risk of West Nile problems is not as great as with some other diseases. But considering the severity in those rare cases, it is not an illness to be discounted. It did kill 286 people in the USA in 2012.

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