HANCOCK - The West Nile virus was first identified in the United States in 1999, and it never left, but there's been a recent spike in the illness, which has led to some deaths in the country, including in Michigan, but not the Upper Peninsula.
Terry Frankovich, medical director of the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, said West Nile virus showed up in Michigan a few years after it was identified in the United States.
"The first human cases in Michigan were in 2002," she said. "We're seeing more cases this year than we've seen since 2002."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, as of Tuesday there were 1,509 reported cases of WNV and 66 deaths, and according to the Michigan government website, there have been 80 reported cases and five deaths from the illness in Michigan as of Thursday. The five deaths in Michigan were people 69 to 87 years old.
"The people clearly at risk are 50 (years old) and older," she said.
Frankovich said 70 percent of the recent confirmed cases of WNV were in six states, including Michigan.
"Almost half of those were in Texas," she said.
The WNV is carried by mosquitoes, and Frankovich said officials with the CDC think the reason for the current spike in the number of cases may be the hot, dry summer. If there are no heavy rains, the breeding areas of mosquitoes, particularly standing water, may not be washed away, leading to an increase in the mosquito population.
The symptoms for WNV are fever, headaches and body aches, Frankovich said. Since those aren't unusual symptoms, many people may not even seek medical help.
"Eighty percent of the people who get this never know they're infected," she said. "Mild or moderate cases work themselves out."
People who develop those symptoms and have concerns they may have contracted WNV should contact their medical care provider, Frankovich said.
In the worst case, if WNV is left untreated, Frankovich said it can affect the brain, which eventually can lead to death.
There is no cure for West Nile virus, Frankovich said, but there are treatments.
"There's no vaccine," she said. "It's more supportive care."
Frankovich said the best way to keep from contracting WNV is prevention: Wear long sleeves and pants when in areas where there may be mosquitoes; remove standing water whenever possible to prevent mosquito breeding; and keep household window screens in good condition. According to the CDC, the use of DEET or Picaridin mosquito repellents are helpful also. Oil of lemon eucalyptus is a good plant-based repellent.
Frankovich said WNV typically peaks in late summer or early autumn, and the CDC has said the illness is in the United States permanently.
"There's been West Nile activity every year," she said. "It's worth using preventative measures to avoid exposure."
More information about West Nile virus can be found at cdc.gov/westnile or michigan.gov/westnile.