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West Nile Virus: If You're Over 50, Your Risk Is Higher

Some important steps to take to protect yourself

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En español | Federal health officials are warning older adults to take extra steps to protect themselves against the mosquito responsible for this summer’s record outbreak of West Nile virus.

Thanks to the extreme heat and drought affecting the country, the mosquito that carries the West Nile virus has flourished. The result, say officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the worst outbreak of the virus in history — infecting people in 47 states and causing 41 deaths so far.

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AARP Blog: West Nile Virus Precautions for Older Adults

Protect your skin from mosquito bites with insect repellent containing DEET. — Photo by Kallista Images/Getty Images

The 1,118 cases reported as of this week are the most since the virus was first detected in the United States in 1999. About 75 percent come from just five states — Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota and Oklahoma. Texas has been particularly hard hit, with nearly half the cases reported there.

The only states not reporting West Nile activity are Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii.

In a teleconference with reporters Wednesday, CDC officials said they expect reported cases to spike even higher this month, as the disease peaks, according to ABC News.

Although most people will suffer only mild flu-like symptoms — or won’t show any symptoms at all — 20 percent may develop a fever, headache, body ache, vomiting, swollen lymph glands or a skin rash.

One of every 150 people with the virus will develop the more serious “neuro-invasive” diseases, such as encephalitis or meningitis. Of all the cases reported so far, more than half — 56 percent — have been neuro-invasive, Lyle Petersen, M.D., the CDC’s director of the division of vector-borne infectious diseases, said in the teleconference.

Older adults with health problems, such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease or those on immune-suppressant drugs for organ transplant, are at the highest risk for developing severe symptoms if they become infected with the virus.

“People over 50 are at increased risk for the neuro-invasive consequences from the virus, particularly in the five states that have been hardest hit,” said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the CDC. “If you’re in an area that you know gets lots of mosquitoes, you need to take precautions.”

The most important steps to take to protect yourself, according to the CDC:

Avoid dusk and dawn. Mosquitoes bite the most at dawn and dusk, so try to avoid going outside during those hours.

Use bug spray with DEET.  When you do go outside, use insect repellent containing DEET. Just be sure to follow the directions, don’t use it on infants and wash your hands after applying.

Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when you go outside. They will help protect your skin from bites. You can even spray your clothes with bug spray for more protection.

Get rid of standing water. Mosquitoes breed in water, so get rid of water that has collected in kiddie pools (stand the pools on their side when not being used), pet bowls, gutters, potted plant saucers, birdbaths, trash cans, etc.

Use screens on windows. Make sure your windows all have screens and patch any holes where mosquitoes could get inside.

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the AARP Bulletin. She previously was a reporter with the Washington Post and has written numerous articles on food, health and nutrition for national magazines.

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