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TN State Health Department Confirms Two Shelby County Deaths From West Nile Virus

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) - Only after Local 24 News demanded answers about two West Nile Virus deaths in Shelby County, the Tennessee State Health Department finally sent a notice.

Despite the Local I-Team interviewing the Shelby County Health Department, no one would go on camera to explain why officials didn't warn the public.

Of the 485 infected mosquitoes found in Tennessee, nearly 466 were found in Shelby County. Shelby County Health Department officials admit that sounds bad, but they say there's a legit reason.

Shelby County has the highest number of Mosquitos that tested positive for the virus.

David Sweat is the director of epidemiology and infectious disease at the Shelby County Health Department. He says Shelby County has a high number of positive mosquito tests for West Nile because it's one of the few counties in the state that tests for the virus.

But the Tennessee Department of health says that's not correct. Dozens of other cities and counties across the state test mosquitoes.

There have been two human cases of West Nile so far in Shelby County. Both people died from the virus.

88-year-old Robert Garland of Orange Mound was one of them.

"Look like he start getting weak. And then look like he start talking out of his head a little bit,” said his daughter Sharon Thaxton.

Shelby County Health officials won't always release zip codes where human cases are found.

Symptoms of West Nile virus are flu-like. Sweat says most people who become infected don't even know it.

"We'll continue probably to have cases diagnosed through the end of October through the end of October possibly early November,” said Sweat.

According to Health Department officials, Vector Control sprays for Mosquitoes every evening, weather permitting. The county is split into zones. Crews spray each zone in the county on a rotation basis from May to the end of October.

But some areas get more attention than others.

“When we have positive mosquito pools or we have a human case, then we direct additional spraying into those areas,” said Sweat.

Garland's family claims the only time they saw vector control spraying in the Orange Mound area was after Garland passed away.

"They say they spray all the time, and it was that bad enough to take him to heaven.  You know we have to be cautious of whatever outside or inside,” said neighbor Lillie White.

Take precautions.

  • Get rid of standing water.
  • Use insect repellant that contains DEET.
  • And wear long, loose-fitting clothing to reduce your chance of being bitten.

Nationwide, eight people have died this year from West Nile Virus. Two of those deaths were here in Shelby County.


The Tennessee Department of Health urges Tennesseans to take preventive steps to avoid mosquito-borne diseases. West Nile virus is the most common mosquito-borne virus circulating in Tennessee. TDH has seen a recent increase in West Nile virus in mosquito testing in addition to human cases. Sadly, this includes two recent WNV deaths in Shelby County.

“We all know mosquitoes aren’t just a nuisance. Last year 30 Tennesseans were infected with West Nile virus and sadly, we saw two recent deaths in Shelby County,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Most but not all healthy people can fight off West Nile virus infection, but some get seriously ill with major consequences like severe pain, long-term or permanent nerve or brain damage and even death. This is a critical time of year and it’s up to all of us to do what we can to keep ourselves and others safe from mosquito bites.” 

In most years, the majority of human West Nile cases in Tennessee occur in August and September. All Tennesseans are advised to use mosquito protection for the remainder of the summer and early fall.

“It’s important to know there is no vaccine to prevent West Nile virus. The best way to protect yourself from West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases is by preventing mosquito bites,” said State Epidemiologist Tim Jones, MD. “People can take simple steps to prevent mosquito bites and control mosquito breeding sites around their homes.”

In addition to West Nile virus, Tennessee has seen six cases of La Crosse encephalitis in children so far this year. TDH encourages everyone to follow these precautions to avoid mosquito bites:

  • Use insect repellants such as DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535 on your skin, following all label recommendations for use. Pay particular attention to recommendations for use on children, and never apply any of these products around the mouth or eyes at any age. Consult your health care provider if you have questions.
  • Reduce mosquito populations around your home. Mosquitoes can breed in any place that holds water, including clogged drains or gutters, watering cans and empty bottles.
  • Use products containing permethrin, a highly effective insecticide, for clothing, shoes, bed nets and camping gear. Permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, mosquitoes and other pests and retains this effect after repeated laundering. Some commercial products are available pretreated with permethrin. As a caution, however, it is not to be used directly on skin.                                                               
  • Wear ’long, loose and light’ clothing to help prevent bites through fabric. It’s best to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Tuck your pants into your socks and your shirt into your pants. Light-colored clothes are less attractive to many insects and may allow you to spot them more easily.

TDH conducts mosquito testing to look for West Nile and other mosquito-borne viruses from May to October. Learn more at www.tn.gov/health/information-for-individuals/i/fact-sheets/west-nile-virus.html.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. TDH has facilities in all 95 counties and provides direct services for more than one in five Tennesseans annually as well as indirect services for everyone in the state, including emergency response to health threats, licensure of health professionals, regulation of health care facilities and inspection of food service establishments. Learn more about TDH services and programs at www.tn.gov/health.


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