08/29/2012 04:37 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2012

Michigan: West Nile Virus Claims 5, Health Officials Say Illness At Epidemic Levels For 2012 [UPDATE]

West Nile virus has reached epidemic levels in Michigan this year, according to state health officials. They're urging people to take preventative measures to avoid being infected with the mosquito-borne illness.

“With so many people enjoying the outdoors this coming weekend, we want to be sure that everyone, especially children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems, are protecting themselves from mosquito bites," said Dr. Dean Sienko, Interim Chief Medical Executive for the the Michigan Department of Community Health.

So far, the department has documented five deaths and more than 80 cases in Michigan this year, with most illnesses reported in the Detroit tri-county area and the suburbs around Grand Rapids. On Thursday morning, the department confirmed the most recent death of an 87-year-old woman from Kent County, according to the Detroit News. No other information was given about the woman.

Sienko told the Detroit Free Press the rapid spread of the virus this year could make it Michigan's worst since 2002, when 644 people came down with it and 51 died.

Cases of West Nile virus are escalating nationwide as well. According The Center for Disease Control, 48 states have reported incidents of the disease, which has infected 1,590 people and killed 66 this year, as of August 28. The CDC said this is the highest number of cases reported through August since the illness was first discovered in the U.S. in 1999.

West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and can cause inflammation of the brain or the lining of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include high fever, confusion, muscle weakness and severe headaches. Many people bitten by infected mosquitoes show no symptoms; others may become sick within three to 15 days. Children and those over the age of 50 are most at risk of exhibiting severe symptoms.

To prevent infection, health officials recommend using insect repellents that contain the active ingredient DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or other EPA approved repellents; wearing long sleeved shirts and long pants outside; and emptying standing water from buckets, kid's pools, old tires and other sites where mosquitoes might breed. People are also cautioned to avoid being outdoors at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.

This story has been updated after a fifth death caused by the West Nile Virus was reported Thursday morning.

For more ways to avoid mosquito bites, click through the slideshow:

Natural Ways To Prevent Mosquito Bites