West Nile fever: why an African disease has caused more than 100 deaths in Europe in 2018

West Nile fever: why an African disease has caused more than 100 deaths in Europe in 2018

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Like other diseases such as dengue, zika or chikungunya, the West Nile virus is mainly transmitted to humans by mosquito bites.

Until now it was not a disease of significant presence in Europe, but the dizzying increase of cases this season ignited the alarms.

The European authorities closely monitor the dramatic increase of people affected in their countries by West Nile fever, in what is already considered the deadliest outbreak of this virus in the region in recent years.

According to data from the European Center for the Prevention and Control of Diseases (ECDC, for its acronym in English), this fever usually transmitted to people by mosquitoes and caused so far this year 115 deaths and affected 1,505 people.

Italy, with 35 fatalities, is the country where the Nile fever is being more lethal. Serbia is followed by 29 dead, Romania (25), Greece (24), Hungary (1) and Kosovo (1).

Map of Europe with cases of Nile fever in 2018.
Copyright of the ECDC image
Image caption Location of the more than 1,500 cases of Nile fever reported in Europe in 2018 (until September 20).

Compared to 2017, the deceased are already four times more than the 26 counted then. The number of infected persons, on the other hand, increased fivefold from the 288 reported last year.

Already at the end of August, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the number of cases in countries of southern and central Europe was growing “sharply” over previous years and the ECDC called it “dramatic increase”.

Why this increase?

Experts point to the climatic conditions as the main cause of the rebound of cases and the early start of the transmission season, which normally takes place from June to November.

“This year’s season has been characterized by high temperatures and prolonged periods of rain, followed by a dry climate, which has led to the reproduction and spread of the mosquito that transmits the virus,” the Regional Office for Europe said in a statement. of WHO.

In fact, specialists in health and climate change warned of the danger that global warming represents for public health in Europe, since a higher temperature can lead to the arrival of tropical vectors that spread rare diseases in this traditionally colder region.

Mosquitoes
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image caption The increase in temperatures can encourage the appearance of mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as Nile fever in places where they did not exist before.

According to Jan Semenza, Director of Evaluation of the Scientific Section of the ECDC, “at higher temperatures, mosquitoes reproduce faster, everything is accelerated and there is greater rotation, larger populations of mosquitoes and a growing epidemic potential of viruses 

“We are all a bit confused about how fast these changes are coming in. We are seeing more and more of these extreme weather events,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian .

According to experts, this new situation could also increase the risk of transmission in Europe of other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes such as dengue, zika or chikungunya.

But in addition to weather conditions, there are also other factors such as the increase in tourism and international travel that can bring tropical diseases to areas usually free of them.

Travel in the airport.
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Image caption The increase in international travel is another reason why tropical diseases such as the Nile fever spread to other regions.

“What it means in terms of public health is that we need to worry more about the safety of blood, if someone comes back from Europe and has a virus in their blood, the mosquito can bite them, take the pathogen and then bite someone else. “declared Semenza.

How to protect yourself

The West Nile virus, of which there is no vaccine for humans , is transmitted to people mainly by the bite of infected mosquitoes after biting birds with this virus.

The virus was isolated for the first time in 1937 from a woman from the West Nile district in Uganda. It is currently mainly found in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America and Western Asia.

Woman with fever
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Image caption Fever and fatigue are some of the effects of the Nile fever. 80% of affected people, however, do not have symptoms.

Although it can cause a fatal disease of the nervous system, so 80% of infected people have no symptoms s, according to WHO.

These can be fever, headaches, fatigue, body aches, nausea, vomiting and, sometimes, rashes on the trunk and enlarged lymph nodes.

The WHO estimates that one out of every 150 people infected gets a more serious condition, which can lead to tremors, convulsions, paralysis or coma.

This can occur in people of any age, although those over 50 and people with immunodeficiency (for example, patients who have received transplants) are at greater risk.

Older person with mosquito net.
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES image
Image caption Older adults are at greater risk of severe infection with the Nile virus. Covering with long, light clothes and using mosquito nets are some of the recommendations to avoid it.

In the absence of a vaccine, prevention measures are the usual ones to protect against mosquitoes: use repellents, mosquito nets and clear, long-sleeved clothing.

It is also recommended not to be outdoors during times when mosquitoes bite more (at dawn and dusk) and discard containers where water can accumulate and become mosquito breeding sites.

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