West Nile Virus has a long history in Greece, and it's one of the countries in the European Union with the highest number of incidences every year.
In 2018, 316 cases of West Nile resulted in 50 deaths in Greece, and in the first seven months of 2019, 126 reported cases resulted in 13 deaths. Mosquito season generally runs from mid-May through mid-September, although it can be longer during unseasonably hot summers.
The vast majority of the illnesses have occurred in the northern parts of the country, and virtually all of the fatalities have occurred in senior citizens. While the probability of contracting the virus is very unlikely and none of the cases were reported in tourists, it's still worth taking extra precautions and using mosquito repellants, especially for senior travelers or those with compromised immune systems.
The Spread of West Nile Disease
West Nile virus has become increasingly widespread, afflicting people and livestock in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. While it is called "West Nile" after the location where it was first isolated in Uganda, it likely has been present in many places throughout the world for a long time. Birds are usually the source of a West Nile infection, though mammals—especially horses—can be afflicted by it as well.
There were renewed outbreaks of West Nile Virus across Europe in 2018 and 2019, with 2,083 reported cases in 2018, higher than the previous seven years combined. In Europe, only Italy saw more confirmed cases of West Nile than Greece reported.
How to Avoid It
Despite the rising number of incidences, acquiring West Nile disease in Greece is an extremely rare occurrence. However, it's always a good idea to practice prevention wherever you are, and traveling in Greece is no exception.
- Mosquito repellant kits that include a small fan are very effective. They either sit next to you or clip on to your clothes. All of the chemicals are stored in these devices, so you don't have to apply them directly onto your skin.
- Avoiding marshy areas and stagnant water where mosquitoes are likely to thrive is also a good idea. Mosquitoes are especially prevalent in northern Greece, and less so on the islands.
- Plug-in mosquito repellents are available at grocery stores, mini-marts, and other shops in Greece. Many hotels provide plug-in repellants, so ask your front desk before buying.
- Bring a small citronella candle or pick one up there. If you want to sit outside and take in a stunning Greek sunset, that's also prime mosquito time. Having the candle packed with you is handy.
- Yes, it's Greece in summer, but you should still have one long-sleeved blouse or shirt with you. And don't forget a sarong that can help quickly cover up bare legs or arms if you find yourself suddenly swarmed by mosquitoes.
Is It West Nile Fever?
Most people who contract West Nile will have a moderate to high fever, flu-like symptoms, and in about half of all cases, a rash. The majority of people get over West Nile relatively quickly, and children seem to be particularly resilient. Deaths and complications usually occur only in the elderly, but there are exceptions. Encephalitis is one of the major threats from West Nile, and is usually characterized by a stiff and painful neck in the early stages. If you are experiencing persistent pain in the neck, you may not want to assume that you just grabbed your suitcase wrong as this disease can be fatal.
Your local Greek pharmacy may be your first line of information and assistance. In Greece, pharmacists are well-trained, usually multilingual, and can provide many medications that would require a doctor's prescription in the United States and elsewhere. If no other medical attention is available, a Greek pharmacy can be a good initial resource for the traveler. The staff in these facilities will also be keenly aware of any local cases of West Nile or other mosquito-borne illnesses.
Could It Be Malaria?
There have been a few instances of malaria contracted in Greece. Malaria used to be an endemic problem in Greece, particularly Crete, before modern eradication techniques were employed. Now, only a few cases a year are reported, and none have been confirmed in tourists.