PESTS & WILDLIFE — My Personal Experience With West Nile Virus

(Avatar by Ethan Kocak @Blackmudpuppy)
(Avatar by Ethan Kocak @Blackmudpuppy)

By Jody Green, PhD, Extension Educator, Lancaster County

It is not a secret that I love being outdoors. If you follow me on Twitter (@JodyBugsMeUNL), you know I try my best to explore our Nebraska environments, both indoors and outdoors, looking for arthropods.

I draw mosquitoes to me like a magnet. Several studies have asked the question, “What makes some people more attractive to mosquitoes?” I attribute my ability to attract mosquitoes to my dark hair, affinity for dark clothing, and ability to produce sweat and exude carbon dioxide like a champ.

I travel with a bin of various repellents with different active ingredients and concentrations, but regardless, I find myself with a few bites each week, usually around my eyes, ears or hairline.

Unfortunately, I’m someone who is allergic to mosquito saliva. When a mosquito bites, she injects saliva and anticoagulants that aid in blood feeding. If you’re like me, your immune system releases histamines, which causes itching, swelling and redness at the bite site. It sure is challenging trying not to scratch my bites, and my jealousy for people who have no reaction to mosquito bites is overwhelming. I have a collection of over-the-counter anti-itch treatments to relieve the discomfort.

During Labor Day weekend of 2018, I decided on the spur of the moment to donate blood at a mobile blood bank. Two weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from American Red Cross notifying me that test results showed I may have had the West Nile virus (WNV) at the time of my donation. I was shocked!

Knowing what I know about the virus, I figured I was one of the fortunate 80% that develop no symptoms at all. My friend and family quickly reminded me that the week before my donation, I had a strange rash on my legs and torso, and complained of a headache. My physician wasn’t concerned because I did not have a high fever, which is the most common symptom of illness. By the time I received the letter, I was already over my symptoms and I was allowed to donate again in 120 days.

The reason I am sharing my story is because we are all at risk. We don’t know what species of mosquito is biting us. We don’t know if the mosquito that is biting us is infected with WNV. We don’t know if/when we get infected with WNV how severe our symptoms will be.

I am one of the fortunate individuals who suffered very little, if at all. I have friends, coworkers and acquaintances who were not so lucky. My acquaintances infected with WNV who became severely ill, either passed away or underwent months of recovery and rehabilitation.

I cannot stress how important it is for everyone to practice mosquito management by reducing breeding sites for mosquitoes and wear effective insect repellents. Please practice bug safety this year!