West Nile virus: Elderly woman is first death in Maricopa County this season

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- The West Nile virus has claimed the first life of 2013 in Maricopa County.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health made the announcement Wednesday morning, saying the victim was an elderly woman who had underlying health issues.

“This is another sad reminder of the seriousness of West Nile virus,” said Dr. Bob England, director of Maricopa County Department of Public Health, in a news release. “I can’t remind people enough, one of the easiest things we can do to reduce West Nile virus in our community is to reduce the mosquito population. We do this by getting rid of all the places on our properties that have standing water where mosquitoes can breed.”

So far this year, Maricopa County Department of Public Health has confirmed six cases of West Nile virus in humans. The first reports of the disease in people came earlier this month, but the first positive mosquito sample came in late March, which is earlier than usual.

The disease, which is spread by mosquitoes, causes flu-like symptoms in about 20 percent of people who are infected. Those symptoms can include fever, headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting, swollen lymph glands, and skin rash on the chest, stomach and back.

Fewer than 1 percent of those infected will develop serious symptoms such as meningitis, encephalitis, paralysis, and even death. According to the health department, people older than 50 are generally more at risk for those severe symptoms.

While the illness can be devastating with long-lasting effects, most people with West Nile virus do not exhibit any symptoms at all.

England says patients who suspect they might have symptoms of West Nile virus should talk to their doctors and request a test.

Residents should take the following precautions:

  • Wear lightweight clothing that covers your arms and legs when mosquitoes are active (dusk and dawn) and use an insect repellent containing DEET if you must be outdoors.
  • Eliminate mosquito-breeding sites around your property. Drain standing water in potted plants, tires and other containers.
  • Install or repair window and door screens to keep mosquitoes out of the home.
  • Keep fountains, animal troughs and swimming pools properly operating and free from debris.

Last year, Maricopa County had 88 lab-confirmed cases and four deaths. Nationwide, there were 286 deaths, making it the worst year since 2002. Despite that record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were fewer infections overall and fewer serious cases than in years past.

In 2011, there were 45 lab-confirmed West Nile virus cases and two deaths in Maricopa County. The year before was the county's second-worse West Nile virus season, with 115 lab-confirmed cases and 12 deaths.

The worst season for Maricopa County was in 2004. That year there were 355 confirmed cases and 14 deaths.

West Nile virus first showed up in Arizona in 2003, four years after the first U.S. cases were reported in New York.  The disease was first diagnosed in Uganda in the late '30s.

For more information on West Nile virus, public health assistance, to report green pools or file any mosquito related complaint, and for WNV materials or presentations for your group/organization, call 602-506-0700 or visit www.maricopa.gov/wnv.