Kimberley residents and travellers to take precautions against mosquito bites this holiday period

The Department of Health is reminding residents and travellers in the Kimberley region to take extra precautions to prevent mosquito bites over the Easter break and school holidays, as the risk of serious mosquito-borne disease has increased.

The alert follows a significant increase in the activity of both Murray Valley encephalitis (MVE) and Kunjin viruses.

The increased virus activity had been detected through the Department of Health’s sentinel chicken surveillance program, which acts as an early warning system.

Department of Health Managing Scientist, Dr Abbey Potter, said both viruses are transmitted to people through the bite of an infected mosquito and whilst rare, can cause serious disease.

“We are currently moving into a high-risk period for transmission of both MVE and Kunjin viruses within the region.”

“Many holiday-makers will be travelling to the Kimberley region over the school holidays. It will be important to pack an effective repellent and long, loose-fitting clothing for everyone in the family,” she said.

“Residents are also urged to protect themselves over this time, particularly when spending long periods of time outdoors, such as camping or fishing”.

“While the risk of being infected and becoming unwell is low, the resulting illness can include serious neurological symptoms. In the case of MVE, this may result in long term effects or even be fatal.”

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

In young children, fever might be the only early sign of infection. Parents should see their doctor or local health service if concerned, particularly if their child experiences drowsiness, floppiness, irritability, poor feeding, or general distress.

Dr Potter said symptoms of Kunjin virus disease are usually milder than MVE, but in rare cases, infection may result in headache, neck stiffness, fever and coma.

There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine for MVE or Kunjin virus disease. The only effective way to prevent infection is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

“It is also important to note that although Japanese encephalitis virus has not yet been picked up by our surveillance systems in WA, we cannot rule out the possibility that it may be present at undetected levels,” Dr Potter added.

Japanese encephalitis (JE) is a rare mosquito-borne disease that has just been detected in the Northern Territory, a further increase in its range from the recent outbreak in several other Australian states.

The Kimberley region and Northern Territory have similar mosquitoes and animal hosts (water birds and feral pigs), which are required by JE virus to survive. The current environmental conditions are particularly conducive to mosquito-borne virus activity.

“Whilst the community may be concerned about the possibility of JE virus making its way into WA, it is important not to be alarmed. The same mosquito avoidance measures for MVE and Kunjin viruses will reduce your risk of exposure to this virus also”.

Dr Potter said that there is no need to change your travel plans, this is just an important and timely reminder not to be complacent. You should protect yourself and your family through the following measures:

  • avoid outdoor exposure, particularly at dawn and early evening
  • wear protective (long, loose-fitting, light-coloured) clothing when outdoors
  • apply an effective personal repellent containing diethyltoluamide (DEET), picaridin or Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (also known as PMD) evenly to all areas of exposed skin and always follow the label instructions
  • ensure insect screens are installed and in good condition on houses and caravans
  • use mosquito nets and mosquito-proof tents if sleeping outside
  • use mosquito coils and mosquito lanterns and apply barrier sprays containing bifenthrin in patio and outdoor areas around houses
  • ensure infants and children are adequately protected against mosquito bites, preferably with suitable clothing, shoes/socks, bed nets or other forms of insect screening
  • remove water holding containers from around the home and garden to ensure mosquitoes do not breed in your own backyard

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