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HEALTH

West Nile virus: What you need to know about Spain’s other ‘deadly’ virus

With the news cycle dominated by rolling, twenty-four hour coronavirus coverage in the last six months, you'd be forgiven if news of the West Nile virus in Spain had passed you by.

West Nile virus: What you need to know about Spain's other 'deadly' virus
Credit: Lyle Buss/CC/UF/IFAS

Although the National Epidemiology Centre registered only seven cases of the Nile virus in Spain over the last decade,52 cases have been recorded in humans in last month alone, clustering in Andalusia, with numbers now increasing and at least four deaths in the province of Sevilla so far.

But what is the Nile virus? What are the symptoms? How is it transmitted, and what can we do to protect ourselves and prevent the spread?

The West Nile Virus

The West Nile virus is a “Flavivirus” – a family of RNA viruses that includes the dengue virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, the yellow fever and Zika viruses – that have been around since the 1930’s.

First identified in Uganda, it is believed to have remained around the Nile delta area for decades but has now spread across the world. The virus’s ‘reservoir’ (the population of organisms or environment in which infectious pathogens live, reproduce and depend on for its survival) is thought to be birds, not mosquitoes, who instead behave as transmitters of the virus. 

Symptoms

Much like COVID-19, the Nile Virus can be asymptomatic in the vast majority of people. It is believed up to 80 percent of infected people don’t show symptoms, according to the WHO, while the 20 percent who do could experience an array of symptoms ranging from fevers, fatigue, headaches, nausea and muscle pain in mild cases.

More serious cases could experience West Nile encephalitis or meningitis with a high fever, or even comas and seizures in the most severe cases. Patients experiencing these symptoms are usually admitted into hospital. 

Transmission

Fortunately, unlike COVID-19 the Nile virus cannot be transmitted between people. The transmission process, however, is short and simple: a mosquito bites an infected bird and the virus passes into its salivary glands; the mosquito then bites a human and infects the recipient.

It also affects horses.

Why the recent outbreak? 

Experts blame a particularly wet spring creating stagnant water and the ideal breeding ground for mosquitos. They also blame the coronavirus lockdown, which meant councils may not have conducted fumigations they usually do during spring.

This spring saw an estimated 30 percent rise in the mosquito population in the area around Donaña wetlands – the epicentre of the recent outbreak. 

Regional health minister for Andalucia Jesus Aguirre suggested that the arrival of an invasive species of mosquito known as the Asian Bush mosquito (Aedes Japonicus) may have contributed to the spread of the disease.


Map shows the distribution of cases discovered in horses in Spain. Source: Ministry of Agriculture.

 

How can we prevent transmission?

Simply put, the best way to stop becoming infected with the Nile Virus is to try and avoid mosquitos. Whilst many Spaniards are well versed in preventative measures – the use of nets, repellents and creams, avoiding buildups of stagnant water and covering the skin, for example – extra vigilance is required because there is, as of 2020, no treatment or vaccine for the Nile virus.

Fumigation has been undertaken in problem hotspots to try to kill off the mosquitos responsible for spreading the virus and Andalusia's regional government has promised an investment of €100,000 on drones to spray inaccessible areas.

Should you be worried?

Although there is no specific profile of at-risk people, like COVID-19 older people with underlying health conditions are at a greater risk of suffering serious symptoms or fatalities.

The four fatalities so far recorded in Spain were all among elderly people; three men aged 70, 77 and 78 and a woman of 85. 

If you are bitten by a mosquito, the incubation period lasts somewhere between 3 and 14 days; medical attention should only be necessary if symptoms appear or you were bitten in one of the high risk areas of Andalusia.

Even so, fortunately it seems that only 0.1 percent of people infected with the Nile virus die from it.

By Conor Faulkner/The Local Spain

READ ALSO:  West Nile virus outbreak spread by mosquitos kills two in Andalusia

 

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HEALTH

How Spain could stamp out smoking

A fifth of Spain's population smokes on a daily basis. With such high numbers, here's how the country's pulmonologists propose to get smokers to quit.

Spain plans to get people to quit smoking
How Spain plans to get people to stop smoking. Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP

For many outsiders, Spain is a nation of smokers. 

The stats from Spain’s Ministry of Health show that 23.3 percent of men smoke every day in Spain, compared with 16.4 percent of women.

For both males and females, the highest number of smokers are aged between 25 and 34, meaning that it’s the younger population who are smoking slightly more than the older generations. 

Spain’s pulmonologists are now pushing for the country’s tobacco laws to be tightened, claiming that reform is needed after the last legislation was approved a decade ago.

READ ALSO: Spain warns against smoking and vaping in public to avoid Covid infections

Why is smoking such a problem in Spain and what is being done about it?

The latest stats from the Spanish Ministry of Health show that lung cancer, often caused by smoking, is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in Spain, with 29,549 cases diagnosed so far in 2021.

Given these high figures Spain’s Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR) has proposed five measures to help get people to stop smoking.

SEPAR points out that every time anti-smoking legislation is reformed and things for smokers made more difficult, the prevalence of smoking decreases.  

Smoking on terraces was banned in some regions during the pandemic. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP
  • Price of tobacco to rise in 2022

The first point on their list is to raise the price of tobacco, which must cover all forms, from cigarettes to cigars, through to rolling tobacco, and electronic cigarettes.  

This first measure may soon become a reality as the Spanish government has already predicted that the price of tobacco will rise in 2022, after several years of stagnation.  

It is expected that tobacco will be responsible for almost a third of all special taxes received in 2022, equating to €21.8 billion.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “cheap tobacco” in Spain guarantees “a percentage of smokers above 30 percent”.

In Spain, the price of a pack of tobacco is around €5, which is much cheaper than in other countries. In Australia for example, a pack of tobacco costs around €22, and in the United Kingdom and France, each pack of tobacco costs around €12.4 and €10.5, respectively.

According to Dr. Carlos A. Jiménez Ruiz, pulmonologist and president of the society, the current anti-smoking law has “some deficiencies” that need to be addressed in order to develop legislation that is more effective and efficient, especially with regard to the prevention of tobacco consumption in young people, but also in helping smokers to stop smoking and in protecting the health of non-smokers. 

READ ALSO – Maps: Which beaches in Spain have banned smoking?

Besides increasing the cost of tobacco SEPAR proposes four other measures to get Spain to quit smoking. These include:

  • Banning the consumption of tobacco in public spaces, even outdoors
    During the pandemic, several regions approved a regulation to prohibit smoking on terraces. SEPAR proposes that smoking be prohibited not only in spaces such as terraces but also in sports stadiums, beaches, parks and bullrings, and that fines should be imposed for those who do not comply.

  • Establish generic packaging
    SEPAR also wants Spain to introduce generic packaging, which means no logos and images of the tobacco companies. This measure has also proven to lower the sales of tobacco in countries where it has been implemented, such as Australia and New Zealand. According to the latest statistics from the Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey around 11.6 percent of adults in Australia smoke daily. 

  • The regulation of other smoking devices
    Despite the fact that all products that burn tobacco such as cigarettes are already regulated, SEPAR believes that it is also necessary to regulate the sale, consumption and advertising of electronic cigarettes. This is because e-cigarettes have become particularly popular among young people. 

  • Promote help for those seeking to quit smoking
    The last proposal is the creation and development of special units in public health departments to help people to stop smoking and to put more funds towards these programmes. 

How does Spain compare with other European countries when it comes to smoking?

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while Spain does have a high number of smokers there are still several European countries that have more. The European countries with the highest number of smokers are Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary.

The latest European survey from 2020 shows that 42 percent of Greeks claim to be smokers, which is only slightly above Spain. 

On the other side, the European countries with the lowest number of smokers are mainly Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway.

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