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Summer Risks vs. Realities

The news media are so full of warnings about potential summer health hazards that you may wonder, as the season wears on, how anyone ever comes through unscathed.

Summertime Epidemics

You've likely heard by now that West Nile season has returned, along with the newly hatched swarms of summer mosquitoes.

In 2003, 9,862 cases of West Nile virus disease were reported to the CDC, which included 2,866 cases of severe West Nile encephalitis or meningitis. The other cases were classified as West Nile fever, which is milder. In all, 264 people died from West Nile infection, which is a miniscule number compared with the average of 36,000 who die from the flu each year.

"The fatalities are predominately among people who have severe West Nile virus disease, and who are over the age of 50," says Sue Montgomery, an epidemiologist with the CDC Division of Vector-Borne Diseases.

It's not possible to predict how bad an outbreak will be in a given area and to be able to guess at how great your risk is. "The virus hasn't been in this country long enough," Montgomery says.

From January 2004 to June 21, 2005, 2,539 West Nile cases and 100 deaths had been reported to the CDC.

Lyme disease is another summertime worry, especially for people living in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, where the disease is most densely concentrated. Warm weather sends people with bare legs out to hike and work in tall grass and underbrush, where ticks carrying the Lyme-disease bacterium await.

In 2002, the CDC recorded 23,763 cases, and the numbers have been steadily increasing since 1991. Lyme disease symptoms can be miserable, and even disabling if not treated properly, but fortunately it's rarely fatal.

Heat Wave

At least once a year, many Americans hear that the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory for their area. "Beat the heat" tips are broadcast, and city officials set up emergency oases for those without air conditioning at home. But how deadly can hot weather be? To elderly people in stuffy rooms, kids and pets locked in hot cars, and anyone overexerting themselves -- very.

Three hundred people died from extreme heat in 2001, but from year to year the numbers can vary.

A major heat wave in 1980 killed more than 1,250 in the central and eastern U.S., according the National Weather Service, and may have indirectly claimed the lives of as many as 10,000. More recently, more than 500 people died in five days during a 1995 Chicago heat wave.

The National Weather Service uses a "heat index," which takes both air temperature and humidity into account, to determine how hot the weather really feels. A heat index in the 90- to 105-degree range means a risk for sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion. The 105- to 130-degree range means that heat stroke, the deadliest kind of heat-related illness, is possible. Beyond that, heat stroke is considered "highly likely."

Under such conditions, you should take it easy, spend as much time in air-conditioning as possible, take cool dips or showers, and drink plenty of fluids. Probably, no one will have to twist your arm.

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