After being a relatively rare problem in most regions over the past few years, West Nile virus (WNV) case numbers have boomed lately, with large outbreaks in some US states.
Forty-nine (49) confirmed or probable human cases have been reported in Ontario, the largest number in a decade. Considering we’re just heading into the typical peak WNV season, it’s quite concerning as the worst may be yet to come. At this time last year, there were only 24 reported cases.
Human cases have been reported in at least four other provinces: Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec.
Two equine cases of WNV have been reported, one in Saskatchewan and one in Quebec. It’s hard to have a lot of confidence in this number because of the poor surveillance and reporting for this disease in animals in Canada, given that the CFIA has largely washed their hands of dealing with it. Infection with West Nile virus has been pretty much a non-entity in most regions over the past few years, at least in terms of diagnosed cases, and it remains to be seen whether equine cases will mirror the spike in human cases this year. Typically the trends are similar each year, so the next few weeks will tell us a lot.
The US is in the midst of its largest WNV outbreak ever. At least 1118 human cases have been reported so far in at least 37 states, with at least 41 deaths. Typically less than 300 cases are reported by this time of year. Texas has experienced a huge outbreak, accounting for about half of the US cases.
There hasn’t (apparently) been a surge in equine cases, with less than 100 cases of WNV reported in horses as of August 18. Whether that’s because of infrequent testing, biological or geographic factors resulting in less equine exposure or vaccination of horses (remember that there is no WNV vaccine for people) isn’t clear.
Concern is being raised about risks to pets, but the true risk is very limited. While WNV infections have been reported in dogs and cats, these are extremely rare and dogs and cats are failry resistant to the virus.
Often, when a new infectious disease emerges, the first year or two are the boom years, after which things settle down. That was the pattern with WNV in most areas; however, this year in on track to meet or surpass the numbers from those early years.
Why is this happening? No one knows for sure. Changing weather patterns, by chance or through the larger spectre of global warming, are probably playing a major role. Warmer temperatures let mosquitoes mature faster and allow the virus to grow quicker in the mosquitoes. Milder winters help mosquitoes survive. Any factor that fosters more mosquito numbers and growth, particularly the subset of mosquitoes that bites both birds (the reservoir of the virus) and people, can increase the risk of human and animal exposure. Changes in rainfall, wetland management, climate and human proximity to mosquito breeding sites can all play a role.