It was in the early stages of July when a seemingly harmless mosquito bite turned into a disaster for 78-year-old Sam Quinones of Waco, Texas.
“My mom’s husband got sick and wasn’t able to stand up and walk or anything. That evening he fell out of the bed,” said Terry Dickey. “(Sam’s wife) went ahead and called an ambulance and they took him to the hospital. Then, they gave him antibiotic after antibiotic and ran every test in the world.”
The results of the tests took nearly a week to get back, Dickey said. But when she and her mother got the news of the untreatable diagnosis, their lives changed.
“It was confirmed that (Quinones) had West Nile (virus),” Dickey said. “He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t go to the bathroom, or eat. He ended up with encephalitis of the brain, which is swelling of the brain.”
Quinones’s case of West Nile virus is just one of the 3,545 national cases reported to the Center for Disease Control this year. The West Nile season starts in March at the beginning of spring, and runs through early November, the middle of autumn. According to the CDC, there were 712 cases of West Nile virus in the U.S. last year, meaning a 370 percent increase in the number of cases this year, with a month still left in the 2012 season. If this rate continues, the total number of cases could exceed 3,500 – five times the number in 2011. This could be the worst year for West Nile virus since 2003.
There are two official and documented forms of the virus, neuroinvasive and non-neuroinvasive. Quinones’ case was classified as neuroinvasive.
Dr. Steve Presley, associate professor with the Texas Tech Institute of Environmental and Human Health, said the neuroinvasive strain is quite deadly.
“There’s West Nile fever, which makes you feel bad, gives you a headache and your joints ache, and it feels like you got the flu for a week or two,” Presley said. “West Nile neuroinvasive disease affects the nervous system, kills people, affects the respiratory and circulatory systems. It does a lot of organ damage.”
According to CDC statistics, Texas is host to almost 40 percent of the nation’s confirmed West Nile virus cases and a third (52) of the nation’s 147 West Nile deaths.
Presley said the mosquito-borne virus is not maintained in the mosquitoes themselves, but in nature – specifically, in birds. Presley calls these virus-carrying birds the reservoir hosts.
“When the mosquito population reaches a high-enough level, the mosquitoes will feed on the bird, pick up the virus and naturally will go back and feed on other birds, because most of them prefer to feed on birds,” Presley said. “But if they can’t find a bird, they’ll feed on a human or a horse and inject the virus into the next host.”
The virus can amplify or replicate enough to cause illness in most mammals, which are considered dead-end hosts for West Nile virus, meaning the virus cannot be spread from human-to-human or mammal-to-mammal.
With at least 11 confirmed cases of West Nile virus in Lubbock County, TIEHH is now shifting its focus to mosquito collection in several areas around the county to test the captured mosquitoes for strands of the virus. The biweekly collection is conducted by several people working for TTIEHH.
Juliet Kinyua, a TTIEHH graduate student from Kenya is one of the workers that go on the route to collect the trapped mosquitoes. They use dry ice to lure mosquitoes into the netted traps. Once the mosquitoes have taken the bait, they’re taken back to the labs to be screened for West Nile virus.
Presley urges those in the surrounding Lubbock area to take precautions to prevent contracting the deadly disease. He said to use mosquito repellant with DEET, which he said is extremely safe and effective against mosquitoes.
“Prevention is a lot. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Presley said. “Don’t ever think that it can’t happen to you, it can happen to anyone.”
Contributed to The Hub by Dr. Kaufhold’s multi-platform class and TexasTechToday.com
–Video: Kaitlyn Cennamo; Print: Andrew Nepsund; Photos: Scott Cilke