First West Nile deaths for 2016 confirmed in LA County

A mosquito sits on a stick April 9, 2009 in Martinez, California.
A mosquito sits on a stick April 9, 2009 in Martinez, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Two people in L.A. County have died from the West Nile disease, the Department of Public Health confirmed this week. Both were elderly people living in the San Fernando Valley, and mark the county’s first confirmed deaths from the disease this year.

With 2016 already two-thirds over, the West Nile death toll may seem low for this year. But Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim health officer for L.A. County, told KPCC the number of reported infections would likely climb over the next few months.

“We’re just entering the peak season right now,” he said. “September’s the peak month, we’ll continue to see a lot of cases in October, and it can continue into November.”

For more on the disease, see our West Nile FAQ.

Last year, L.A. County saw a total of 300 reported infections and 24 deaths from the virus.  So far in 2016, the county and state have been seeing more reported cases of West Nile infections than at this time last year, Gunzenhauser said. So far, there have been 68 reported cases of the disease in the county, and 155 cases in California. At this time last year, there had been 116 reported cases statewide.

Elderly people and those with immune deficiencies are the most at risk – the median age of reported cases in the county is 59. “But while most deaths and serious illness are among these older individuals, everyone’s at risk,” Gunzenhauser said.

Not everyone who gets infected with the virus exhibits serious symptoms: Some might experience it as akin to a flu, and others might have no symptoms at all, so the actual number of infections may be higher than what’s reported, he added.

The West Nile virus is transmitted by Culex mosquitoes – a different breed than the type that carry the Zika virus (which so far has not seen any reported transmissions in L.A. County). Culex mosquitoes are most prevalent in the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley and East L.A.

To avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, Gunzenhauser advised residents to wear EPA-approved mosquito repellant, as well as long sleeves and long pants. Those living in mosquito-prone areas can also regularly check around their houses to eliminate standing water, and make sure all screens on doors and windows are intact.