The West Nile virus (WNV) was discovered in 1937 in Uganda (Africa), in the West Nile region. Since then, the virus has spread and can be contracted in various countries around the world, including the United States and Canada.
In Québec, the virus was identified for the first time in 2002. It is now present in several regions, particularly in southern Québec.
Mosquitoes are the main pathway for introduction of the virus in humans. In Québec, as in the rest of North America, infections caused by WNV are seasonal. They occur in summer and continue in fall, up to the first frosts.
In most cases (80%), people infected with WNV do not have symptoms.
However, some individuals may develop symptoms. They appear from 2 to 14 days after being bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus. The severity of WNV infections varies. The most frequent benign symptoms are:
- Muscle pain
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Skin rashes with pimples
- Swollen lymph nodes
Less than 1% of people infected with WNV will develop a severe form of the disease resulting in neurological disorders. Meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain) and encephalitis (brain inflammation) are examples and may be manifested by the following symptoms:
- Intense or unusual headaches
- High fever
- Stiff neck
- Nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or disorientation
- Loss of consciousness and convulsions
- Coordination disorders
- Muscle weakness
When to seek medical help
If you experience one of the symptoms associated with the severe form of WNV infection, seek medical help promptly.
There is no specific treatment or vaccine for WNV in humans. However, most people infected recover without treatment.
The capacity to fight the virus depends on your health status and age. This capability decreases with age.
A serious West Nile virus infection generally requires hospitalization. Health care aims to stabilize the infection and improve health status.
Complications and aftereffects
Following an infection resulting in neurological impairment, sometimes permanent neurological deficits have been reported.
In rare cases, WNV may cause death.
WNV is transmitted to humans mainly through bites by mosquitoes carrying the virus. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. WVN mostly infects birds, but also humans and other animal species such as horses.
WNV is not transmitted when a person is in contact with an infected bird or animal or with another person.
Although the risk is low, WNV can be transmitted during blood transfusion or organ transplant. To reduce the risk in Québec, Héma-Québec tightly controls the quality of donated blood.
Anyone can contract WNV. People who work or spend a lot of time outdoors are most at risk of getting infected. The risk of WNV infection is as high in the city as in the countryside.
Protection and prevention
Avoiding mosquito bites is the best way to prevent WNV infection. Simple measures can be taken to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
People at risk
People aged 50 and over, those who have a weakened immune system and those suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, have a higher risk of developing the severe form of WNV.
Last update: May 25, 2021