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25 February 2011

Mosquito-borne disease risk in northern and central WA

The Department of Health today advised people living and holidaying in the Kimberley, Pilbara, Gascoyne and Murchison regions of Western Australia to avoid mosquito bites, following the detection of the mosquito-borne Kunjin virus.

Department of Health Medical Entomologist Sue Harrington said that the mosquito and virus surveillance program (undertaken by The University of Western Australia) had detected Kunjin virus in the Kimberley in recent weeks, and preliminary data indicated that the virus was also now active in the Pilbara region.

"Recent heavy rainfall has resulted in large areas of standing water and the potential for mosquito breeding in many areas of the Kimberley, Pilbara, Gascoyne and Murchison regions. Surveillance results show that mosquitoes are carrying Kunjin virus, with activity of Murray Valley encephalitis (MVE) virus, also likely during the wet season months," Ms Harrington said.

A number of cases of the more common Ross River virus and Barmah Forest virus diseases have already been reported from the Kimberley and Pilbara regions this wet season.

"The risk of being infected and becoming unwell is low, but mosquito-borne illnesses can be debilitating and people should take sensible precautions to avoid mosquito bites," she said.

"Infection with Kunjin virus can cause symptoms that are similar to Ross River virus disease, such as swollen and aching joints, fever and rash. However in rare cases, Kunjin can cause more severe symptoms which include headache, neck stiffness, fever, delirium and coma."

Initial symptoms of MVE include fever, drowsiness, headache, stiff neck, nausea and dizziness and people experiencing these symptoms should seek medical advice quickly. In severe cases, people may experience fits, lapse into a coma, and could be left with permanent brain damage or die.

"In young children, fever might be the only early sign, so parents should see their doctor if concerned, and particularly if their child experiences drowsiness, floppiness, irritability, poor feeding, or general distress."

Ms Harrington said people most likely to be affected by Kunjin or MVE viruses were newcomers to affected regions, such as babies, young children, tourists or new employees, but anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical advice quickly.

"There are no specific cures or vaccines for these mosquito-borne diseases so it is very important that people take care to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes."

Ms Harrington said controlling mosquitoes in most rural regions of WA was generally not possible because of the large size and inaccessibility of natural mosquito breeding habitat.

People do not need to alter their plans to visit the Kimberley, Pilbara, Gascoyne or Murchison regions, but it is important to avoid mosquito bites by taking a few simple steps, such as:

  • avoiding outdoor exposure from dusk and at night
  • wearing protective (long, loose-fitting) clothing when outdoors
  • applying a personal repellent containing diethyl toluamide (DEET) or picaridin to exposed skin or clothing. The most effective and long-lasting formulations are lotions or gels. Most natural or organic repellents are not as effective as DEET or picaridin or need to be reapplied more frequently
  • ensuring insect screens are installed and completely mosquito-proof: use mosquito nets and mosquito-proof tents
  • ensuring infants and children are adequately protected against mosquito bites, preferably with suitable clothing, bed nets or other forms of insect screening

Media contact: (08) 9222 4333

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