West Nile bites Mass. Norton remains virus-free

Massachusetts has experienced three confirmed cases of West Nile Virus this fall, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

In a campus-wide email on Sept. 15, Student Health Services Coordinator Cynthia Maricle informed the Wheaton College student body that several cases of West Nile Virus (WNV), a mosquito-borne illness, have again been confirmed in Massachusetts.

While mosquito testing in Norton and the surrounding area has been negative, Maricle says the reported cases are not uncommon for the late summer and early fall months in Massachusetts.

“Since the greatest risk for human infection with [West Nile Virus] in Massachusetts occurs early August through late October, there are generally several cases documented each late summer/fall,” said Maricle.

While the number of confirmed cases at the time of the original announcement was two, in an email to the Wire last week Maricle updated the count to three. Last fall, confirmed cases in Massachusetts totaled eight.

West Nile has been confirmed in Barnstable County, which encompasses Cape Cod and the surrounding area, but “the results of mosquito testing in Norton and surrounding towns has been negative,” Maricle said.

“The purpose of sending the WNV email to the Wheaton community was to … alert students that the virus has been confirmed in mosquitoes in the [general] area and in several individuals in the state; and to provide simple, common-sense steps to prevent exposure to mosquitoes and thereby reduce the risk of infection.”

West Nile Virus symptoms vary, but most infected individuals will be asymptomatic and “will recover on their own,” said Maricle. “Generally persons over the age of 50 and those with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of contracting the disease.”

Maricle noted that when symptoms do occur, they are likely to emulate flu-like symptoms including fever, headache and muscle aches, but “in rare cases infected individuals experience a more severe illness with central nervous system involvement and symptoms ranging from confusion to coma and death.”

Risk of WNV infection “will continue until the first hard frost (temperature less than 28°F for several hours),” according to Department of Public Health State Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Catherine Brown, related by Maricle. 

Maricle said that students can reduce their risk of infection against all mosquito-borne illnesses by following several simple steps, including avoiding outdoor activities during peak hours — around dusk, according to Brown — as well as wearing long sleeves and pants when outdoors, using insect repellent with the chemical compound DEET, and using screens on open windows.

Sick or dead birds and animals may also indicate that WNV or another insect-borne disease is present in the area, and Maricle encourages students to call Public Safety should they encounter such an animal.