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Man, 70, Is First O.C. Victim of West Nile Virus

Health: He had traveled to Nebraska. His doctor says media focus has created 'undue hysteria.'

October 09, 2002|DAVID HALDANE and CHARLES ORNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 70-year-old man who had traveled to Nebraska was identified Tuesday as Orange County's first probable victim of the West Nile virus, while health officials in Los Angeles County remain baffled about how a 31-year-old woman there acquired what appears to be California's only home-grown case of the disease.

Both have recovered.

"People can't be scared of this thing," said James McGuy, a Newport Beach financial planner who believes that he contracted the virus from a mosquito bite at an outdoor family reunion in Central City, Neb. "When you get it, there's nothing you can do but lie down, let them take your blood and drink lots of water."

The doctor who treated him agreed there's no reason to worry. "The media focus on this has created undue hysteria," said Dr. Philip Robinson, also of Newport Beach. "Most people who get infected ... don't become ill; many don't even know they had it, or may think that they had the flu."

That was certainly true of McGuy, who began experiencing flu-like nausea, headaches and body aches late last month about nine days after returning from the visit with his wife to Nebraska. "I just didn't feel good," he recalled. "I played golf that day and quit at nine holes, which I never do."

He went to the Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian emergency room and was admitted with a 104-degree temperature. "We basically just controlled his pain, nausea and fever with pain medicines, Tylenol and intravenous fluids," Robinson said. "We just treated the symptoms."

A couple of days later, McGuy was back home. It was only later that his blood test results came back from Nebraska pointing to probable West Nile. "I was shocked," he said. "We had talked about it before going back there and both were concerned because a horse had died in Central City and a woman is in the hospital."

McGuy has no recollection of being bitten by a mosquito although, he said, "they were all around and my wife got bit in the foot."

The case of the Los Angeles woman, meanwhile, has baffled public health experts since they announced her infection in early September. She hadn't traveled outside the region and didn't remember being bitten by a mosquito, the route of transmission in nearly all cases.

No other locally acquired cases have been reported here or in any adjacent state. And health authorities haven't found any signs of infection in local mosquitoes, birds or chickens, typical indicators.

"There's always the theory that a mosquito got off a plane at LAX and infected this woman," said Dr. Frederick Murphy, a professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. As time goes by and no other evidence is found, the theory becomes "more logical."

Dr. Laurene Mascola, chief of acute communicable disease control for Los Angeles County, described the case as a "big question mark." But she said her office has given up trying to figure out its origin, saying such knowledge wouldn't help protect residents.

"We all know it's going to come," Mascola said. The delay "will give us another year to be even more prepared."

Cases of West Nile acquired in other parts of the country continue to pop up in California. Los Angeles County, Contra Costa County and San Francisco have reported infections among people who had traveled outside the state.

In about one in five cases, people experience mild symptoms, including fever, headache and nausea. One in 150 require hospitalization. West Nile infections can cause meningitis, an irritation of the brain's membranes, or encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.

West Nile first appeared in the United States in 1999, killing seven people in the New York area.

As for McGuy, he said he plans to fly to Ohio this weekend. "I just wouldn't worry about it," he advised those worried about the disease. "If it hits, it's going to feel like the worst case of flu you ever had, but you're going to live. Just get to the hospital, take lots of fluids, take lots of Tylenol, tell yourself you're going to beat it."

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