The Mahoning Valley has so far avoided the West Nile virus and this year’s version of the swine flu, Influenza A H3N2v.
The perfect storm of a warmer-than-usual and hot rainy spring, a hot dry summer and recent rain, however, has created conditions ideal for proliferation of the Culex mosquito, whose bite spreads the West Nile virus to humans, state and local health officials said.
The Culex continues to breed during a drought, and populations are going up more than normal, said Dr. Richard Gary, state public health entomologist with the Ohio Department of Health.
Unlike other insects, the Culex mosquito breeds in water that might be available during a drought, such as a dried-up creek or swamp or a storm-sewer drain.
Add in higher-than-normal temperatures that speed up the life cycle of the mosquito and stresses birds, the other players in the equation, and the necessary ingredients are there for expansion of the West Niles virus, Dr. Gary said.
In 2002, with weather conditions similar to 2012, there was a huge outbreak of the virus. Ohio confirmed 441 cases in humans and 31 fatalities. Confirmed cases declined sharply after that until 2011, when ODH recorded 21 cases. Already in 2012, there are 19 cases, Dr. Gary said.
The hot weather also exacerbates the West Nile virus problem by bringing people out of their homes to sit on the porch or lawn to enjoy cooler early-evening temperatures at dusk, one of the prime times for mosquitoes to feed and bite, said Dr. John Venglarcik, medical director for the Mahoning County District Board of Health. They also bite at dawn, he added.
Dr. Venglarcik urged people to wear clothing that covers them from wrists to ankles, including shoes and stockings, rather than sandals, and use mosquito repellent. Mosquitoes bite bare feet, too, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says that most often, WNV is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. Infected mosquitoes can then spread WNV to humans and other animals when they bite.
Most people bitten by mosquitoes with West Niles virus develop no symptoms, and others have mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization.
Dr. Gary said, however, for those who develop severe symptoms, it can be devastating and even fatal.
“In my opinion, avoid mosquitoes and just wash your hands frequently with soap and running water before and after exposure to animals,” he added.
There have been no confirmed cases of swine flu — Influenza A H3N2v — in Mahoning, Columbiana or Trumbull counties this year, although there have been confirmed cases in the past, Dr. Venglarcik said.
But, breakouts of the new swine flu have hit several states hard, including Indiana and some sections of Ohio, particularly Butler County, which borders Indiana, according to the state health department.
The 17 cases in Butler County are believed to have been contracted by people who had contact with pigs at the Butler County Fair.
Despite escaping the swine flu so far, local public health officials are taking precautions for the upcoming Canfield Fair.
It is safe to come to the fair, Dr. Venglarcik said, but he urged fair-goers to not take open food and drink containers into the pig display areas and to wash their hands after touching any animals. That is the single most important thing, he said.