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West Nile virus spike highest in US since 2004

Insecticide is sprayed in Dallas, Texas in this August photo.
August 17, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
The U.S. is experiencing its biggest spike in West Nile virus cases since 2004 with a total of 26 deaths this year.

The federal government counts nearly 700 cases in 32 states, with Texas being one of the hardest hit states.

Thursday night, airplanes began spraying pesticide over the Dallas area. The virus is spread by infected mosquitoes. Some residents fear the chemicals could harm their children and pets. Also, critics have questioned whether the approach is scientifically proven to reduce West Nile cases. But at least one study in California concluded that the odds of infection are about six times lower in treated areas than those that are untreated.

Jordan Conner, a 14-year-old in Arlington, Texas, caught a rare strain of the virus that is affecting her brain. At any moment, she could lose consciousness or control of her limbs.

"If a parent is not connected with their child, your child could die on your sofa and you not know it because it just seemed like Jordan was taking a nap and not waking up," said Ebonie Conner, the teen's mother.

She said she doesn't approve of aerial spraying and wishes local leaders would do more to educate the community.

"We've been desensitized to West Nile virus," she said. "It's been ingrained in us that it affects older people and infants. I think they need to pass out insect repellent, mention it in back-to-school drives."

There are no medications to treat the West Nile virus or vaccines to prevent infection. Health experts say prevention measures include avoiding mosquito bites, using insect repellant and getting rid of insect breeding sites.

The hot, dry weather across the nation's midsection has created ideal conditions for some species of mosquito. The heat speeds up their life cycle, which accelerates the virus replication process. And during a drought, standing water can quickly turn stagnant when it's not flushed away by rain or runoff.

Most people infected with West Nile virus won't get sick, but about one in 150 people will develop the severe form of the illness. Symptoms include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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