The Louisiana Department of Health has confirmed the most severe form of the West Nile virus in a handful of parishes, including Livingston Parish.
Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, said in a Thursday press conference that officials have confirmed five cases of West Nile neuroinvasive disease, a serious form of the virus that affects the nervous system.
Three other cases are awaiting confirmation.
Symptoms from West Nile neuroinvasive disease include severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, muscle weakness, numbness, tremors, vision loss, coma, or paralysis.
These symptoms last several weeks, and can cause death or permanent brain damage.
The elderly are most at risk for this form of West Nile, but anyone who contracts West Nile has a chance of developing this most severe form, according to the LDH.
“Neuroinvasive disease is the most feared complication of West Nile,” Kanter said. “It can be fatal and when it’s not, it often leads to permanent disability.”
The five confirmed cases were discovered in Beauregard, East Baton Rouge, Livingston, Orleans, and Ouachita parishes.
Kanter noted that, “Those are just the cases that we know about that caused neuroinvasive disease.” Based on lab results taken from mosquito traps, the Department of Health has confirmed West Nile mosquito activity in at least 21 parishes “and likely more.”
“It’s a widespread problem,” Kanter said.
West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes and can cause illness in people and animals, according to the LDH. It was found in the U.S. in New York City in 1999 and has since spread throughout the country.
Louisiana has reported infections since 2001, and the virus has been active in the state since 2002, the outbreak year when the state saw 328 cases and 24 deaths from the disease.
West Nile virus is spread to humans commonly by the bite of infected mosquitoes. In rare instances, the virus has been spread by blood transfusion, organ transplant, breastfeeding, and from mother to child during pregnancy.
Kanter said the West Nile virus usually pops up after storms due to increases in mosquito breeding related to standing water, which was abundant in Louisiana following Hurricane Ida.
Kanter offered some tips for preventing West Nile, such as limiting your exposure to mosquitoes. This can be done by wearing long sleeves, applying bug repellent, or staying indoors.
Another useful tip is to reduce the number of places where mosquitoes can breed, Kanter said.
“These are water breeding mosquitoes and typically called ‘container mosquitoes’,” Kanter said. “They breed in very small amounts of standing water. It doesn’t have to be any larger than a bottle cap that’s overturned and filled with rainwater to have a breeding ground.
“When you have a breeding ground, you have more mosquitoes in your home.”
Kanter advised people to regularly go around their property “and overturn any standing water.” Typical culprits are plant saucers, debris, and lawn equipment, he said.
“Any standing water, even small amounts on your property, if you overturn that regularly, you’ll keep breeding grounds for mosquitoes to a minimum and reduce the amount of mosquitoes that are causing you and your families problems,” Kanter said.