As COVID-19 lingers, West Nile virus remains a threat

With cases in NJ on the rise, health officials warn people to take precautions, like covering up and using repellent
Credit: (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
Mosquitos that can transmit West Nile and other viruses to human, seen in a petri dish.

With most people focused largely on the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey officials are warning residents to stay on guard against another viral danger: West Nile.

The mosquito-borne disease has already caused the death of a Camden County man in his 60s, who became infected in July, the state Department of Health said Tuesday. It has likely sickened at least 14 people — more than four times the infections logged during 2020, state records show, and nearly twice what officials said is a typical annual count.

The seasonal toll is likely still rising; DOH said staff is now reviewing another half-dozen cases that could involve West Nile.

Nobody had died from West Nile in New Jersey since 2018, officials said, when the state saw three fatalities and a record 61 cases, the highest number recorded to date. The virus appeared earlier than usual that year and was found in more spots around the state, water tests conducted throughout the spring and early summer revealed.

“It is important to remind residents to continue to take precautions to protect themselves against mosquito bites,” Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said, noting that West Nile season peaks in August and September here. “Using an insect repellant and avoiding being outdoors when mosquitos are active are just some of the steps residents can take to stay safe from mosquito-borne illnesses.”

West Nile virus, which has been endemic to New Jersey for some two decades, is transmitted from infected birds to humans and other animals via mosquito bites. In humans, symptoms range from mild to severe and can involve fever, chills, body aches, rashes and, in serious cases, tremors, convulsions and infections of the brain and spinal cord.

The disease is more dangerous to those over age 50, DOH said, and roughly one in 150 cases can be serious. Among those with serious West Nile, the death rate is about 10%, according to WebMD, or about one in 1,500 for overall infections.

Of the 14 human cases of West Nile recorded in New Jersey this year, 11 are considered probable and must still be confirmed. The cases are sprinkled among 10 counties, stretching from Bergen to Gloucester.

Last year the DOH logged just three human cases, according to an annual report from the department’s Communicable Disease Service, versus eight in 2019, a number officials said is typical for recent years. Two of the 2020 infections involved individuals from Monmouth County, the third occurred in an Essex County resident.

Ida a factor

In addition to tracking human infections, state officials regularly monitor the presence of the West Nile and similar diseases in freshwater sources around the state. Tests of these sites, which serve as breeding grounds for mosquitos, indicate there is more West Nile virus circulating this year, compared to the five-year average, officials said.

“We are seeing an increase in mosquitos at present due to the recent flooding from Ida,” said state Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette, whose agency works with county mosquito control programs statewide to control the insects’ population in an effort to reduce the risk of West Nile and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“New Jersey residents can help stay safe by making sure to remove any standing water in yards and to cover any empty containers that can hold water for more than three days,” he added.

West Nile is not the only vector-borne illness — those transmitted by insects or pathogens themselves — tracked by the DOH’s communicable disease experts. By the second week of September, New Jersey had confirmed one case of dengue fever, 31 cases of malaria and nearly 1,800 instances of Lyme disease; no Zika infections have been reported this year.

In 2020 it recorded two cases of dengue, three Zika cases, two dozen malaria infections and nearly 2,600 Lyme disease diagnoses.

To protect against West Nile, Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases, state officials urge residents to do the following:

  • Apply insect repellent that’s registered with the federal Environmental Protection Agency;
  • Avoid being outdoors during dawn and dusk, when mosquitos are most active;
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants; cover strollers and baby carriers with mosquito netting;
  • Repair holes in screens or use air conditioning when possible to keep mosquitoes from getting inside homes.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight