The West Nile virus has received plenty of attention in recent years. It is spread to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. The first outbreak occurred in the United States in 1999. Although some children have become ill when infected with the virus, in most cases the symptoms are mild.
Mosquitoes become carriers of the virus by feeding on infected birds. Although other animals have been infected with the virus—including horses, bats, squirrels, and domestic animals—birds are the most common reservoir. Once the virus has been transmitted to a human through a bite, it can multiply in an individual’s bloodstream and in some cases cause illness. However, even if your child is bitten, she’ll probably have only mild symptoms or none at all. Among people who have been bitten and contracted the infection, about one in five develop mild flulike symptoms (i.e., a fever, headaches, and body aches) and at times a skin rash. These symptoms tend to last only a few days. In less than 1 out of 100 infections, a severe illness can occur (so-called West Nile encephalitis or meningitis), with symptoms such as a high fever, a stiff neck, tremors, muscle weakness, convulsions, paralysis, and loss of consciousness.
Like all people, your own child’s risk of West Nile virus comes mostly from mosquito bites. She cannot catch the disease from an infected playmate or from touching or kissing a person with the infection (or even by touching a bird infected with the virus).
There is no vaccine to protect your child from the West Nile virus. But you can reduce her likelihood of developing the disease by taking steps to reduce the chance that she will be bitten by a mosquito that could be carrying the virus. Here are some strategies to keep in mind.
Apply insect repellent to your child, using just enough to protect her exposed skin.
The concentrations of DEET vary significantly from product to product—ranging from less than 10 percent to over 30 percent—so be sure to read the label before you buy. The higher the concentration of DEET, the longer the action and the greater the effectiveness of the product. Effectiveness peaks at 30 percent, which is also the maximum concentration recommended for children. Check the label for this percentage because some products can have concentrations much higher than 30 percent. DEET’s safety does not appear to be related to its level of concentration, however; a prudent approach is to select the lowest effective concentration for the amount of time your child spends outdoors.
Avoid products that include DEET in a sunscreen because the sunscreen needs to be applied frequently, while the DEET should be used just once a day. More frequent applications of DEET may be associated with toxicity. Also be sure to wash the DEET off with soap and water at the end of the day. Even older children should not apply DEET- containing repellents more than once a day.
Do not use DEET preparations on infants under two months of age. In older children, apply it sparingly around the ears, and don’t use it on the mouth or the eyes. Don’t put it over cuts.
An alternative to DEET, called Picaridin, has had wider use in Europe, but has recently been marketed for use in the United States. It is a pleasant-smelling product without the oily residue of DEET. It is used in concentrations of 5 to 10 percent.
Whenever possible, dress your child in long sleeves and long pants while she’s outside. Use mosquito netting over a baby’s infant carrier.
Keep your child away from locations where mosquitoes are likely to congregate or lay their eggs, such as standing water (e.g., in birdbaths and pet water dishes).
Because mosquitoes are more likely to bite humans at certain times of day—most commonly at dawn, dusk, and in the early evening—consider limiting the amount of time your child is outdoors during those hours.
Repair any holes in your screens.