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Disease profile: West Nile virus

West Nile virus counts itself among the lesser known mosquito-borne diseases in India. Its impact is far lesser than that of dengue fever or malaria. However, a recent death associated with the disease has brought it to the attention of health authorities.  Greater levels of scrutiny have now revealed that the disease may be more common than previously suspected.

The West Nile virus is most commonly transferred to humans through bites from an infected mosquito. As is the case with many other mosquito-borne infections such as malaria and dengue fever, this opens up the possibility of infection throughout most of India.

Humans, however, are not the primary hosts of the virus’s breeding cycle. The virus’s natural hosts are birds. Due to mosquitoes feeding on humans and other mammals, the virus may be transferred to these incidentally.

Public domain image, wikimedia commons

Prevalence of West Nile virus

The Indian National Health Portal refers to West Nile virus as “highly prevalent in India”. Despite this, detailed information is all but absent in regards to the disease. Sporadic outbreaks of the condition have occurred in India for many years, mostly subsiding after a period of time.

Symptoms are most often absent, allowing the disease to proliferate among the population with only minimal instances of symptoms occurring. Due to the primary host of the infection being birds, the virus remains highly mobile, allowing it to spread to mosquito populations over a wide geographic area and hence spread to humans.

Instances of blood donations tainted with the virus have also been uncovered recently, presenting another avenue by which the disease may spread throughout the population.



Around eighty percent of individuals infected with West Nile virus present no symptoms at all. In those that do display symptoms, they are often mild. Typical symptoms may include a fever, headaches and nausea. These are easily mistaken for the flu or potentially other mosquito-borne infections such as dengue fever.

The disease is mostly mild, though in some rare instances can become neuroinvasive, causing issues in the brain. In these instances headaches may occur, as well as disorientation, sleepiness or paralysis. A doctor must be sought out immediately in these instances, as the disease can cause encephalitis — potentially resulting in death.


Prevention and treatment

As a viral infection there are no medications that can be used to specifically treat West Nile virus. In most instances the disease will resolve itself, many will be unaware they ever had it.

Prevention strategies in line with other mosquito-borne diseases are the best method of avoiding the disease. Insect repellant, as well as insecticide treated mosquito nets are an ideal means to reduce infection rates.

For those who develop neuroinvasive West Nile virus, hospital treatment is essential. To limit the damage caused by the potential encephalitis close medical monitoring is applied, along with intravenous fluid intake and anti-inflammatory medication.

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