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State health department: High risk of West Nile Virus in Nebraska, especially in panhandle

Posted at 7:10 PM, Aug 07, 2023

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — In Nebraska, an average year means about three groups of mosquitoes tested for West Nile Virus will have it at this time of year, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

As of July 29, the number for this year: 93. That's about 13% of groups tested.

"We get to this number in a bad year in late August," said Jeff Hamik, the vector-borne disease epidemiologist at the state health department. "So, to have it here before mid-August is certainly unprecedented."

Most of those 93 positive groups were in Nebraska's panhandle. In Scotts Bluff and Box Butte counties, there have been 79 combined. But in eastern Nebraska, three groups were found in Dodge County, and one each in Lancaster and Cuming counties.

DHHS puts the Nebraska panhandle at "very high" risk and the metro and central regions at "high" risk.

"Once we see these ... positive pools come in, our human cases tend to follow," Hamik said.

That was the case in 2018, he said, when Nebraska led the country in West Nile cases. But that year, the high level of activity was in the eastern part of the state. He said western Nebraska could see a high rate of West Nile Virus, but might see fewer cases than 2018 because of the location of the hot spots.

So far this year, there have been four cases in humans in the state, one of them discovered from a blood test.

West Nile causes no symptoms in 80% of cases. But in less than a percent, the virus can cause serious issues to the nervous system or death.

David Kohll, who runs Kohll's Pharmacy, had a rare case. He keeps fitness top-of-mind, but at a triathlon in 2014, he caught the virus. He remembers swatting at mosquitoes that day.

About a dozen days later, he said, he was brought from his home to a hospital, unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he found he couldn't walk, talk or think. He says he still faces some issues but worked hard at physical and speech therapy.

Even though Kohll was unlucky to catch the virus — and unlucky to develop a rare, serious case — he feels fortunate. Of that fraction of serious cases "a large portion don't make it," he said. "I'm able to have an excellent quality of life and an excellent family."

Jody Green, an educator and entomologist at the Nebraska Extension Office in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, gave these tips for avoiding mosquito bites and the West Nile Virus:

  • Use an EPA-approved bug spray, especially at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active, and follow the label.
  • Dumping standing water twice a week to prevent mosquito breeding. If that's impossible, there are products that can be put in the water to eliminate larvae.

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