California's 1st human West Nile Virus death in Kern County

California's 1st human West Nile Virus death in Kern County »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — An elderly Bakersfield woman is California's first reported fatality from West Nile virus this year. Kern County continues to be a hot spot for the mosquito-spread illness, and experts warn residents must continue taking precautions.

"People are getting way too comfortable with maybe just short periods of time outdoors," Kern County Public Health Officer Dr. Claudia Jonah said Friday. "Any period of time you might be bitten by a mosquito, you create the risk for infection with West Nile virus."

Dr. Jonah said the elderly are most at risk from the virus, plus anyone with underlying health problems. She can only say the victim is 88 years old, and fit that pattern.

"So that was a factor," Dr. Jonah said, "possibly the reason why this person ended up being a death from West Nile virus, rather than just getting the infection and then recovering."

Victims get WNV when they're bitten by an infected mosquito, and the bugs get it from first biting an infected bird. The virus first turned up in California in 2004, and while other areas have seen activity taper off -- Kern has not been so lucky.

"Kern County has been declared endemic for West Nile virus," Dr. Jonah said. "Ever since we started detecting West Nile infection it has continued to occur."

"What Dr. Jonah means is, it's not going away," Gene Abbott explained. He's superintendent at the Kern Mosquito and Vector Control District. Abbott said a virus is typically "hot" for about the first five years, and then they see cycles of activity about every five to ten years. That has happened in other parts of the state.

But in Kern County, WNV has been found every summer. Abbott says they aren't positive why, but he has some ideas. "We have heat, we have the long days, and the virus likes the hot weather, too."

Mosquitoes breed in water, of course, and the district has a plane that sprays a natural bacteria over large areas of standing water to treat for larvae. They have truck-mounted sprayers to treat areas like sumps and drainage ditches in more residential areas.

Their crews also use foggers to apply materials to get rid of adult mosquitoes in neighborhoods. That's usually done in early morning hours.

But, they find the virus active in Kern County, even when the area is suffering through a drought like this year.

"This drives the birds and mosquitoes into town where they can find the sump water, the gutter water, and even the un-serviced swimming pools in people's back yards," Abbott explained.

To look for those bad pools, the district gets aerial photos. Abbott said this summer about 3,600 have been identified, and they've treated about 2,000 pools so far. They can apply materials that only affect mosquitoes, or add fish that eat mosquitoes.

In many cases they find these pools at vacant homes, but not always. "If you can't afford to service your own pool for some reason, call us -- we'll come and treat it for the mosquitoes at no charge," Abbott said.

Local officials encourage the public to report green pools, or get to get other information by calling the county's West Nile hotline at 1-877-81-VIRUS. Dead birds and squirrels can be indicators of the virus, and the state has a hot line to report that. The number is 1-877-WNV-BIRD.

The risk to people is generally low, according to state officials. Less than one percent of those infected will develop serious illnesses. But the elderly and those with chronic health problems are most at risk.

So far this year California's had 11 cases, according to state officials. Last year at this time there were seven human cases and no deaths, according to a state announcement on Friday. It notes there were 159 human cases and nine fatalities during all of 2011.

State officials also say the nation is being more hard hit with WNV this year, with 241 cases as of August 1. That's the most since the virus was first found in 2004.

During that time, Kern has stayed a hot spot. In 2004, Kern had 59 cases and one death -- according to state data. The worst year was 2007 when 140 human cases and four deaths were reported in Kern County.

This year's trends are troubling, especially the death of the elderly Bakersfield woman.

"This unfortunate death reminds us that we must protect ourselves from mosquito bites to prevent West Nile virus and other mosquito-born infections," said Dr. Ron Chapman. He's the director of the California Department of Public Health. He also worries people are not being careful to use insect repellent, saying we may get a "false sense of security in our own backyards."

Gene Abbott said in addition to that precaution, home-owners also need to get rid of any standing water.

"Police your own yards," Abbott warns. "Mosquitoes can breed in the smallest amounts of water. We find mosquito larvae in the saucers under planters all the time."

The final reminder is "3 D's" of West Nile virus prevention. Use insect repellent, especially with the ingredient DEET. Drain standing water in any areas, and take extra precautions at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes can be most active.