Health Commissioner Warns That West Nile Virus Risk Remains

Albany, September 15, 2000 – State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H. today reminded New Yorkers that, even though summer is coming to an end and temperatures are getting cooler, West Nile virus remains a health risk, particularly for older New Yorkers.

"As our attention turns to fall outdoor activities such as hiking or outdoor sports, it is important that New Yorkers who are at the highest risk for serious illness from West Nile virus – that is, people age 50 and older – continue to take precautions. Anytime you are outdoors, dress in clothing that will provide maximum protection from biting insects and, after reading and following the instructions for application, use an insect repellent containing DEET, to help prevent mosquito bites," Dr. Novello said.

Although only an estimated one percent of people who are infected with West Nile virus will develop encephalitis or another life–threatening condition, older individuals are at a much greater risk than are people in any other age group. Ten of 11 patients who have been hospitalized with West Nile virus this year in New York have ranged in age from 53 to 87. To reinforce the message of who is at high risk, the State Health Department has purchased television air time to broadcast a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that will focus on personal protection measures, especially for older individuals. In the PSA, actors playing the part of a mother and her pre–teen son remind the "grandfather" character to dress appropriately and to use DEET before attending an after–school soccer game.

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans only by bites from infected mosquitoes. Several species of mosquitoes have now been identified as infected with West Nile virus. Although the various species are active and feed at different times of day, biting activity most often increases at dawn and dusk. Therefore when planning to be outdoors for some time, remember that personal protection measures are important to prevent mosquito bites, especially for those who are 50 and older.

Young people are not in a special risk group for West Nile virus, but if parents are worried that their children will get mosquito bites while waiting outside for the school bus early in the morning, they may consider using a DEET–based insect repellent. Do not let children apply DEET themselves, and remember to read the label instructions.

Although mosquito activity is known to diminish with cooler temperatures, mosquitoes will continue to be present, and biting, during autumn when and if the temperature rises above 50 degrees. Last year, many cases of illness caused by West Nile virus had onset of symptoms during the months of September and October, so until cold weather arrives, it is vital for people to continue to try to avoid mosquito bites and to reduce or eliminate areas of stagnant water on their properties where mosquitoes breed.

Backyard swimming pools are an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes if they are not kept clean. Once pools are closed for the season, they should be covered, and any water that collects on the cover should be removed, if possible. If a pool cannot be covered or if water collects on the cover, use of a mosquito larvicide (sometimes referred to as a "dunk") should be considered. Home–owners also should clean roof gutters and pick up any debris that may have accumulated over the summer, such as tires, children's toys, flower pots and any other objects that can collect standing water. The process should be repeated next spring.

Deet Tips For Proper Protection:

While they are effective, insect repellents containing the chemical N,N–diethyl–n–toluamide – more commonly known as DEET – must be used with care. The New York State Department of Health recommends taking these precautions when using repellents containing DEET:

  • Store bottle out of the reach of children and read all instructions on label before applying.
  • Do not let children apply DEET themselves.
  • Avoid prolonged and excessive use of DEET. Use sparingly to cover exposed skin; do not treat unexposed skin.
  • Do not apply repellents in enclosed areas. This is especially important when using sprays or aerosols.
  • Do not spray DEET directly on your face. Put it on your hands first and then apply to your face.
  • DEET can be applied to clothing, but very high concentrations may damage some synthetic fabrics and plastics.
  • Wash treated skin and clothing after returning indoors.
  • If you believe you are having an adverse reaction to a repellent containing DEET, wash the treated area immediately and call your physician. Have the product with you when you seek treatment so that label information is readily available.

9/15/00–114 OPA