DALLAS — Dallas County health authorities announced the first death so far this year from the West Nile virus, prompting directors to warn that this season could be Dallas’ worst involving the deadly illness.
“I am very concerned,” Dallas County Health and Human Services director Zachary Thompson admitted at a Monday news conference. “When you’re in the epicenter right now of the country, it’s imperative we step up our prevention efforts.”
Thompson said Dallas is seeing more cases of the virus than any other county in the nation. So far, 16 people in Dallas County have been infected; 14 of those cases are neuro-invasive, which is considered more serious.
“It’s probably going to be the most severe season we’ve had,” said Dr. James Luby with UT Southwestern Medical Center. “This is epidemic level.”
Officials said a man in his 60s, who had underlying medical conditions, died earlier this month from West Nile — the first fatal case in Dallas County since 2009.
The man, whose name was not released, lived in the 75204 zip code, which is near downtown Dallas. The elderly and young children are especially susceptible to West Nile.
Since appearing in Texas in 2002, the disease peaked in Dallas County in 2006. That year, more than 100 people became sick and four of them died.
Health experts said it appears the number of infections and deaths this year will surpass those of 2006.
“We have to expect more deaths,” Dr. Luby warned. “This promises to be at least as severe as 2006.”
Since the illness is spread through mosquitoes, county leaders are urging homeowners to dump standing water and to apply insect repellent when spending time outside.
Officials blame the weather for the spike. A serious drought for the past two summers kept the disease largely at bay. County officials reported only two illnesses those years.
But frequent storms this spring and early summer have refilled ponds and creeks, helping mosquitoes thrive.
“Increase in moisture has allowed an increase in mosquito activity,” said Christopher Perkins, Dallas County’s Medical Director and Health Authority.
In response, the City of Dallas has started spraying neighborhoods with insecticide. It’s the first time the city has deployed its sprayers since 2010. Crews are now spraying neighborhoods three nights a week.
The city, however, is only spraying neighborhoods where tests have confirmed the existence of the West Nile virus. The city considered and dismissed more widespread spraying in all neighborhoods — not just where the disease has been found.
“If you over-spray, there is a possibility and a risk for what we call 'resistance' from the mosquitoes,” said Micheal Wheeler with the city’s code department.
Tracking the disease is also proving difficult. Currently, workers trap mosquitoes at 90 sites across the city and then later examine the mosquitoes for the virus.
Officials gave up testing dead birds a couple of years ago, because it proved too unreliable in determining where the virus was concentrated. Birds can migrate for miles, but mosquitoes can only fly over a half-mile area.
“The enemy is treacherous and it is a powerful enemy,” Dr. Luby said. “We don’t have the means to control the virus, and that’s why it’s a problem.”