Throughout the country, people are on edge as record numbers of West Nile virus cases are reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total of 1,590 cases and 66 deaths in 48 states as of Tuesday.
As of Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Community Health reported 80 confirmed cases and four deaths related to the virus in the state. One case has been reported in Ottawa County and a death related to the virus has been reported in Kent County.
An additional 16 cases in Michigan were reported in which the victims didn’t show any signs or symptoms of the virus, or become ill.
The first West Nile-related death this year in West Michigan was reported Wednesday. WZZM-TV said Lorraine Gutowski, 87, of Grand Rapids died after being hospitalized for nine days.
According to the TV station's report, Gutowski first reported flu-like symptoms Aug. 18. She was admitted to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids two days later and suffered a heart attack.
The state health department's spokeswoman, Angela Minicuci, said 2012 is already the worst year for West Nile since the virus came to Michigan 10 years ago. She said not only are there more cases this year, but the first cases were reported about two weeks earlier than normal.
“A lot has to do with weather,” Minicuci said. Michigan and some other states haven’t received the rain that would normally flush out typical mosquito breeding locations.
In 2011, the state health department reported 34 West Nile virus cases in humans in Michigan. Two deaths, both in the Detroit area, were related to the virus.
Minicuci said residents with weakened immune systems, typically the very young and elderly, are getting sick from the virus. The youngest human case was a 2-year-old.
The virus is spread from an infected host to humans and wildlife by mosquitoes. On Wednesday, the state health department also reported 19 birds, one horse and 16 mosquito samples have tested positive for the virus in Michigan.
Although most people don’t show symptoms, health officials said some infected people become sick three to 15 days after being bitten by a carrier.
Mild symptoms fall into a non-neuroinvasive category, while severe symptoms are listed as neuroinvasive. The virus has the possibility of becoming meningitis or encephalitis.
Anyone with symptoms of West Nile virus should seek medical attention.
Tom Bultman, professor of biology at Hope College, said there are about 44 mosquito species in the U.S. that can carry the virus. The most common mosquito species in Michigan is the culex pipiens.
While the virus is bad news for humans, Bultman said it doesn’t appear to have much impact on the mosquito.
“The mosquito population is pretty low, but those kinds of conditions favor those species that carry the virus,” he explained.
As people spend time outdoors and prepare for the Labor Day weekend, they should be cautious, health officials said. While the mosquito population is down, Bultman said the species that are currently out have a heightened probability of carrying the virus.
“People need to take precautions,” he said.
The Ottawa County Health Department offers details on the virus and prevention tips at miottawa.org/HealthComm/Health/wnv.htm.