Editor's note: Doctors from Chelsea Community Hospital in Washtenaw County declined an interview for this story.
As August came to a close, confirmed human cases of West Nile virus in Michigan were counted at 124, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.
Six of those have resulted in death, including three fatalities in Wayne County and .
On Thursday, Michigan health officials announced a Grand Rapids man died after contracting the West Nile virus, the latest human fatality from the mosquito-borne disease in Michigan in 2012. According to the Associated Press, it's the second West Nile death in Kent County this year. Eighty-seven-year-old Lorraine Gutowski died Aug. 29.
At the Dearborn-based Oakwood Healthcare System, doctors are taking the matter seriously, but are urging people not to panic.
“We’re definitely seeing more cases this year in the Oakwood network,” confirmed Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, an infectious disease specialist for Oakwood. “Usually we see these cases in August and September, so we’re midway through that now.”
West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and can cause inflammation of the brain or the lining of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include high fever, confusion, muscle weakness and severe headaches. Many people bitten by infected mosquitoes show no symptoms; others may become sick within three to 15 days. Children and those over the age of 50 are most at risk of exhibiting severe symptoms.
Health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that 2012 is the highest number of cases reported through August nationwide since the disease emerged in the U.S. in 1999.
Bagdasarian said there have been seven confirmed cases in Oakwood’s network as of the end of August. The network includes the in Dearborn, Southshore Medical Center in Trenton, Annapolis Hospital in Wayne, and Heritage Hospital in Taylor.
Bagdasarian said that the “vast majority” of people who contract West Nile Virus–generally caused by being bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus–would not show symptoms of the disease.
“Only 20-40 percent are symptomatic,” she said, meaning that someone could contract it and may never know.
“And that’s fine – if you’re not symptomatic, you’re OK,” she added. “You can also have vague symptoms, so if your physician isn’t particularly vigilant you may not know.”
West Nile Virus is not bacterial, so it can’t be spread from one person to another, except through possibly a blood transfusion. However, Bagdasarian said, blood donations have been tested for WNV since 2003.
But the fact that it’s viral also means it’s hard to treat.
“There’s really no treatment for West Nile Virus,” Bagdasarian said. “What we’re really doing is keeping our eye out for cases in the community.”
As such, vigilance is key to identifying possible cases and treating them appropriately.
“We have to have a high level of suspicion,” she explained. “If someone tells me that they went camping and had mosquito bites, we would test them.”
“This is the time of year where we see more cases.”
Still, Bagdasarian urges people not to panic, and to continue living their lives. The best defenses, she added, are long-sleeve shirts and pants, bug spray with DEET, and the elimination of standing water–which is where mosquitoes breed.