By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Nile virus has been on the rise. In 2004, there were 2,539 diagnoses and 100 deaths; in 2005, 3,000 diagnoses and 119 deaths; in 2006, 4,269 diagnoses and 177 deaths.

Texas, which has about twice the population of the Midwestern states, suffered 354 reported cases of West Nile disease and 32 deaths in 2006. While only one person in a group of 194,000 people in Illinois died of West Nile disease, only one in a group of 1.7 million people in Texas died. We accept dangers much greater than this every day.

Although the family is in much greater danger every time it travels in a car, rare diseases that affect the nervous system frighten parents, especially those such as West Nile, where no vaccine is available for humans.

Here are steps that can make the chance of contracting West Nile even lower:

  • To minimize mosquito breeding, eliminate standing water in eaves, buckets, cans, bottles, tires, pots, pet dishes, tree stumps, ditches and any containers that may collect water from a rain shower. Mosquitoes can breed in about one thimble-full of water.
  • Mosquitoes are most active just before dawn and at dusk. Keep the kids in during these times.
  • Keep mosquitoes out of the house by checking that screen doors and window screens close tightly and are not torn.
  • Make sure you and the kids wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and that all exposed body parts have been carefully covered with mosquito repellent containing DEET.

DEET has been shown to be the safest and most effective insect repellent for children, but like sunscreen, it does not last forever. A repellent with 5 percent DEET will protect against mosquitoes for about an hour, one with 10 percent for two hours and so forth. Parents must reapply a 5 percent repellent each hour the child is outside.

DEET has been demonstrated to be safe on children as young as 2 years of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 12 and younger not use any product with more than 12 percent of the agent.

Take these steps to protect your children, but don't let the publicity given to the latest viral disease take your attention from the greatest dangers to your children - careless accidental deaths, alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy and in childhood, overweight or malnourishment, and an incomplete well child care and vaccination program.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children's special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB. This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.