Dallas County sounds public alert for West Nile season: It’s time to get ready

Dallas or Fort Worth automated mosquito misting systems tend to work well for residential or commecial areas with mosquito problems.

Although there is no sign yet of the dreaded West Nile virus, Dallas County officials are alerting residents to prepare for the return of the mosquito-borne virus.

Last year’s record West Nile oubreak was linked to 19 deaths and 398 moderate-to-severe illnesses in Dallas County. Local health officials said Monday they were taking no chances in getting ready for this year.

Such precautions include purchasing insect repellent, repairing screens and doors to keep mosquitoes out and draining standing water outdoors where the insects could breed.

“We’re declaring that this is the beginning of West Nile prevention,” said Zachary Thompson, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department.

West Nile, which was first detected in North Texas in 2002, typically appears from May through November each year. It is carried in birds and can be spread to people by mosquito bites.

However, predicting the size of an annual outbreak is virtually impossible. In 2010, for example, no West Nile infections were detected throughout the county.

Last year, the first mosquito tested positive for the virus here on May 30 and the first human infection was confirmed on June 20. Both were considered early.

“It is important to practice the recommended preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of contracting West Nile virus,” said Anthony Jenkins, the county’s assistant director of environmental health.

Residents should purchase insect repellent in April and have it ready for immediate use when the West Nile season begins, perhaps next month or sooner, Thompson said.

He noted that mosquito spray became hard to find when the 2012 outbreak peaked in August. Many stores had sold out of the DEET-based varieties.

Keeping mosquitoes out of the house also must be a priority, the officials said. A high percentage of severe West Nile infections last year were believed to have occurred inside the home.

“A lot of seniors were not moving around last summer,” noted Dr. Christopher Perkins, the health department’s medical director. “We suspect they were bitten indoors.”

The virus causes no symptoms in about 80 percent of infected people, but can cause mild headaches or fever in about 20 percent of those bitten.

About one in 150 infected people will develop a severe neuroinvasive disease, such as encephalitis, meningitis or polio-like paralysis. Among those with severe illness, fatality rates range from 3 percent to 15 percent and are highest among the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thompson said the next West Nile season will be marked by better cooperation among the four North Texas counties hit hardest by last year’s outbreak.

Health departments in Dallas, Tarrant, Denton and Collin counties will work closley with the regional office of the Texas Department of State Health Services, especially if a significant outbreak occurs.

So far, the four counties have agreed to increase the number of fixed mosquito traps that are tested weekly for West Nile so that the public can be alerted to any viral activity nearby.

However, each county will devise its own plan for mosquito spraying, both on the ground and by airplane, if needed.

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