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West Nile virus season upon us in Lower Yakima Valley

Sunny days and warmer temperatures make way for lots of outdoor activities.

It's also mosquito season, which increases the risk for West Nile virus and the need to avoid mosquito bites. The state department of health has resumed tracking the virus in the state with the online dead bird reporting system.

"It's important to track West Nile virus so people have the information they need to avoid getting sick," said Maryanne Guichard, assistant secretary for the state department of health's environmental public health division.

"This system helps show where West Nile virus activity is in our state. It also lends a hand to counties where resources are limited."

Locating and testing dead birds is one way to track the virus since it's primarily a disease of birds - especially crows, ravens, jays, magpies and hawks. These birds often die when infected with West Nile virus. The Washington State Department of Health asks people to watch for dead birds and report them online or contact their local health agency. Dead bird monitoring is encouraged from May through November.

State and local health agencies will use this information to track unusual increases or clusters of bird deaths. Knowing where this happens helps with prevention and control strategies - it shows where people might be at higher risk of West Nile virus infection.

In 2011, no human, bird or horse cases of West Nile virus were detected. Five mosquito samples in Franklin, Grant and Yakima counties tested positive for the virus. The highest level of West Nile virus in Washington so far was 2009 when 38 human cases were confirmed, and one died.

The West Nile virus is unpredictable, and there's no way to know for sure how much activity will be seen in this state this season. The wet spring created perfect conditions for breeding mosquitoes. Even small amounts of stagnant water collected in buckets, old tires, cans or flower pots become habitat for mosquito larvae. Water in birdbaths, animal troughs and wading pools should be changed twice a week.

The best defense against West Nile virus is to take steps now to reduce mosquito habitat around resident's homes and provide protection from mosquito bites.

The department of health recommends limiting outdoor activities between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are the most active, and wearing long-sleeve shirts, long pants and hats when going into wetlands or woods. The department of health also suggests using an effective repellent on exposed skin and to make sure window and door screens fit tight.

Also, officials recommend fixing leaky outdoor faucets and sprinklers.

Most people bitten by an infected mosquito carrying West Nile virus won't get sick; of those who do, most will develop mild illness with fever and headache. Yet the West Nile virus can cause severe disease, including meningitis or encephalitis. People over 50 years old and those with weak immune systems are at higher risk for serious illness.

Regular updates are available by calling the toll-free West Nile virus information line, 1-866-78-VIRUS.

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