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Elizabeth Cohen: Chances of getting West Nile slim

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen
CNN's Elizabeth Cohen  

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- The West Nile virus has caused three more deaths in Louisiana, bringing the summer's death toll in the state to four, all in this week, health officials said, prompting the state's governor to declare a state of emergency.

Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen filed the following report on the virus, its symptoms and prevention:

COHEN: It is almost impossible to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, the insect which carries the West Nile virus. As a matter of fact, I was talking to a friend who's from Louisiana this morning and she said the mosquitoes just come to us. Sometimes you feel like there's nothing you can do. And so there are some symptoms you can look for.

But before I talk about the symptoms, I want to say one thing that's very important. If a mosquito that has West Nile virus bites you, you have actually a very, very low chance of getting the disease, and an even lower chance of dying from it. I think people sometimes have this vision that if you get bit by a mosquito, you're a goner, and that is not the case.

What we're seeing is that workers in Louisiana, and really all across the United States, do basically what is surveillance work. Here they're looking at dead birds and they collect the dead birds and then they analyze them to see if they have West Nile.

Because if you find birds with West Nile virus in an area, that means that the people need to start worrying. The birds are often sort of this warning sign that you can look for.

Let's talk a little bit about what some of the symptoms are of, first, of the mild infection of West Nile virus and then of a more severe infection. For mild infection, you would see fever, headaches, body aches, rash, swollen lymph glands. And often that's all someone will get, especially a younger person, because their system can fight off a more severe infection, which are much more common among the elderly.

In a severe infection, the signs would be a higher fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma and paralysis.

Again, those kinds of more severe symptoms and death are much more common among older people. The four people who have died in Louisiana were all over the age of 50.

Doctors can be pretty successful in diagnosing West Nile, especially if it's an earlier case -- in other words, if you catch it before those symptoms go on to become severe.

I think one of the problems is that -- as you can see with these symptoms -- they look a lot sort of like the flu. And so you might not know that it's West Nile. So if you do have those symptoms, it's definitely worth going to your doctor.

There are some simple steps to prevent it. The first thing is to just keep mosquitoes out of your house, make sure that nets are patched up and that sort of thing.

The second thing is get rid of pools of stagnant water. You can get thousands of mosquitoes in just a couple of days with a pool of stagnant water and you often don't think about things. For example, if your children have left toys out there, that could be a source of stagnant water.

The third thing that you can do is use, is wear long clothing and use a mosquito repellent that includes DEET. And that's very important, again, especially for the elderly.

The chances of getting West Nile are very small. Think about all the mosquitoes that are in Louisiana and think about all the people that are in Louisiana. The four deaths, as tragic as they are, are a very small number compared with how many people are out there and how many people get bitten by mosquitoes. I mean the chances are very, very low that you're actually going to even get sick and certainly even lower that you're going to die. Having said that, West Nile Virus has been identified in 27 states in the United States. Last year there were nine deaths.

There is no way to know if you are bitten that you have contracted West Nile. This isn't like rabies where you can go find the dog and test the dog. You're not going to find that mosquito. That's not going to happen.

You have to wait for the symptoms. And, again, it's just sort of flu like, fever and headaches and that sort of thing. But given that it's late summer, if you live in a state like Louisiana, where West Nile virus has been found, it's worth going to your doctor. Don't just wait it out.




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