Natural Products On West Nile: Do They Work?

7:41 PM, Sep 3, 2012   |    comments
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ATHENS, Ga. (WXIA) -- As you head out the door to celebrate the last holiday of summer, the Centers for Disease Control has a warning: the number of West Nile cases nationwide is sky rocketing.

Nearly 16,000 human cases and 66 deaths have been reported. That's up 40 percent in just one week.

West Nile is still a relatively young disease in the United States. Researchers are just beginning to learn the long term effects are worse that suspected.

When West Nile first hit Georgia, you might remember the images of dead birds. You were advised to freeze them and send them in for testing. A series of bird deaths used to be a red flag that you were living in an active West Nile environment. Not anymore; birds have built up a resistance. Researchers at the University of Georgia rarely see it in birds anymore.

They also note the West Nile strain in the United States seems to be more serious than that in other countries. Thirteen years ago, when the disease showed up, it was considered a mosquito-borne illness that wasn't that dangerous to humans.

University of Georgia entomologist Elmer Gray said, "It turns out, that it's been in the country since 1999; we're finding that it is much more serious. People that were exposed to the virus appear to have kidney issues later in life. There's higher mortality rates. So, it turns out, the more we learn about it, the more significant it is."

Only 20% of people exposed to West Nile get sick at all. People that are older or with immune deficiencies are more likely to contract the disease. It can progress to meningitis or encephalitis. Both are very serious disease brain conditions.

It's why the CDC recommends the four D's:
• Dress in long sleeves and pants
• Avoid dawn and dusk
• Drain standing water
• Use DEET

When we posted those recommendations on Facebook, one of our viewers, Anne Brock, posted this comment: "We prefer nontoxic, homemade bug repellants." That launched a discussion that covered suggestions from drinking a shot of vinegar to using Skin So Soft. 11Alive took the question to UGA entomologist Elmer Gray: do any natural remedies work?

"The alternative remedies are out there. We hear a lot about them. But when they're compared in scientific studies and compared to DEET, Picaridin, and other approved products, they don't hold up well," Gray said.

There is one product that MIGHT work: the CDC says new tests show Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus works but only for short periods of time. If you're out longer than an hour, they still recommend DEET.

The percentage of DEET can vary widely in bug sprays. The CDC issued this guide:
• A product containing 23.8% DEET provided an average of 5 hours of protection from mosquito bites.
• A product containing 20% DEET provided almost 4 hours of protection
• A product with 6.65% DEET provided almost 2 hours of protection
• Products with 4.75% DEET were both able to provide roughly 1 and a half hour of protection

In Georgia, several counties have reported one human infection, including Fulton, Forsyth, and Bartow here in metro Atlanta. Cobb reports three. Down in South Georgia, Dougherty County hit the hardest with seven cases, including two deaths.

Some people have suggested the higher number of cases in Georgia is due to the higher number of mosquitoes after a mild winter. But when 11Alive visited UGA entomologist Elmer Gray in his lab, he said that's not really the answer. He said it's due to an increased interaction between infected birds and mosquitoes.

"The dry and warm spring concentrated the birds and mosquitoes early in the year. They both need standing water," he said.

The peak for West Nile season officially ends Septmeber 15th, but could go longer if warm weather continues.