Mosquitoes are known to be the bane of the Italian summer, as the hottest and most humid months of the year bring an abundance of pesky insects at all times of the day.
Italians are used to it and are rarely unprepared, as every summer finds them armed with mosquito sprays, citronella-scented candles, and hands raised ready to swat mid-flight mosquitoes.
But Italians are less prepared to face the threat of mosquitoes potentially carrying West Nile virus (WNV), a disease indigenous to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia that has recently moved to Europe and the Americas from the North
This summer, in particular, has seen a dramatic increase in cases, causing concern among health authorities in Italy. This is what we know.
How common is West Nile virus in Europe?
Since 1999, the virus, which causes so-called West Nile fever, has traveled far from areas where it has traditionally been common.
It is now found on every continent on the planet except Antarctica, and in the US it is the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease.
In Europe, it is still relatively rare; according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), about 55 cases of WNV had been reported in Europe this year since July 27.
But the data reveals an alarming fact: of the 55 cases, 42 were reported in Italy alone. This is more than triple the number of cases reported in Greece (12), the country with the next highest number of cases among the four in Europe that have reported the virus on their territory.
The remaining countries, Serbia and Slovakia, reported 16 cases and a single case respectively.
More worryingly, of those who contracted the virus and developed West Nile fever, five people had died from the disease by the end of July.
How big is this year’s outbreak?
In the past week, the number of reported infections in Italy has soared to 94 on August 4, with 52 new cases reported in just one week.
The total number of deaths from the virus has also risen from five to seven in the past week, with five deaths in the Veneto region, one in Emilia-Romagna and one in Piedmont.
Cases in Italy have been largely concentrated in the northwith the city of Padua in the Veneto considered the hotspot of the virus in the country.
The geographic spread of the outbreak is perhaps surprising given that southern Italy is warmer and wetter than the north, offering what is considered a better habitat for virus-carrying mosquitoes. But the Veneto lowlands, with their natural habitat, are actually the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes; Entomologists this year found that the number of mosquitoes in the area had increased by 27 percent, the Italian newspaper reported. Courier.
How to recognize West Nile virus?
Not all mosquitoes are known to carry West Nile virus. Scientists have specifically identified the Culex species as responsible for the spread of the virus.
But what looks like potentially very useful information is less useful considering that there is no prominent characteristic trait to distinguish the species, considered the “average” mosquito.
Culex mosquitoes they are 4-10 mm, brownish in color, and without a specific pattern on the body. They are distinguished from other European mosquitoes by their proboscis (their “mouth”) that sting. Its legs also lack the same pale and dark ring patterns, and its abdomen remains rounded instead of flat.
It is unlikely that you will have the opportunity to observe a mosquito long enough to identify it, and if you do, it may have already sucked your blood.
If a mosquito has been infected with WNV, the virus will be transmitted through its bite.
Most people don’t actually develop symptoms at all, while those who do develop symptoms start showing them two to 14 days after being bitten.
Symptoms of WNV infection usually manifest as a fever accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as headaches, body aches and diarrhea.
In rare cases, the virus can cause an infection of the brain and its lining (encephalitis or meningitis) that can be fatal.
Why are cases increasing?
Cases of WNV are not new in Italy, but so many have never been reported in a single summer.
Although experts have not yet identified why cases are booming now, recent studies suggest a link between higher temperatures caused by global warming and the explosion of mosquito-borne infections.
Experts had already warned a couple of years ago that climate change could lead to an increase in the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
A 2020 study by Imperial College London and Tel Aviv University found that by 2030 higher temperatures could establish the presence of dengue, yellow fever and Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Europe.
The experts behind it the study found that disease-carrying mosquitoes have already benefited from recent climate change around the world, and as this accelerates, more are likely to be introduced into Europe.
A previous study in 2019 it had predicted that disease-carrying mosquitoes will reach 500 million more people worldwide than now, as temperatures rise. Higher temperatures also mean that the breeding season for mosquitoes will become longer and longer, also extending the period of disease transmission.
What are the Italian authorities doing about it?
There is not much Italian authorities can do besides tell people to stay away from mosquitoes, as there is no vaccine available against WNV.
Italy is recommending people wear long pants and long sleeves when they go outside at dawn and during sunset (despite today’s high temperatures), keep mosquito nets on the windows and make sure there is no standing water in the pots of flowers and plants, or in the dogs’ water bowls.
Other recommendations are to cut the grass to prevent mosquitoes from proliferating and introduce fish to ponds and the like so that the insects can be eliminated naturally.
Should you be worried?
Less than 1% of people infected with WNV (1 in 150) actually develop the most severe symptoms, and only 1 in 1,000 people infected will die from the virus.
Those who develop only mild symptoms, 20% of people infected, get over the virus in a matter of days or at worst a few weeks, just like you would with a normal fever.
The elderly are more vulnerable to the virus than the young, with most victims in Italy aged between 70 and 80.
But in Italy, things could get worse before the end of the summer. Virologist Giorgio Palù, president of the Italian Medicine Agency (Aifa), expects cases to continue rising until September, according to the Italian newspaper Il Gazzettino.
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