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West Nile's Mile-High Epicenter

The mosquito-borne virus that can cause meningitis has hit Colorado hard. Fearful residents are flooding hospitals with calls.

August 15, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

BOULDER, Colo. — Josh Watson, a robust sprinkler repairman, was frolicking with his kids in the yard last month when he suddenly became a statistic.

A mosquito, probably loitering in a nearby wet pasture, zipped in and quietly nipped him. A few days later the normally healthy Watson was laid up in bed -- his head pounding, his body on fire with fever and his neck stiff as a board.

"Even my eyeballs hurt," he said. "I've never been sicker in my life."

Watson, 27, from rural Eaton in northeastern Colorado, had meningitis and was the state's first victim of the West Nile virus sweeping the country.

Colorado is the national epicenter of the disease, with 299 cases and seven deaths out of a nationwide total of 446 cases and 11 deaths. The numbers do not include animal infections.

South Dakota runs a distant second with 59 cases and Texas has 34 with two deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although there are no signs that the disease has arrived in California, a Bay Area woman who was recently bitten by mosquitoes in Colorado has been hospitalized with a probable case of West Nile virus, state health officials told the Associated Press on Thursday.

While West Nile causes flu-like symptoms in most people, it can also lead to a fatal inflammation of the spinal cord and brain.

Federal officials warned last week that this year's outbreak would be much worse than the year before, with more people, livestock and geographical areas hit by the spreading virus.

Colorado's hospitals are being flooded with calls from fearful residents who believe every ache may herald the beginnings of a possibly fatal infection. Cities and towns have begun spraying areas along rivers, ponds and lakes where insects breed. And hardware stores report a booming trade in anti-mosquito products.

"Our business is up 30 or 40%," said Frank Hanks, manager of McGuckin Hardware. "We are selling a lot of mosquito repellents and things you can put in your yard to kill them."

While urging residents not to panic, state public health officials are also telling them to either stay indoors at dusk when mosquitoes feed or cover themselves with insect repellent. They also warn that West Nile virus will be around for years to come.

"The virus is here to stay," said John Pape, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "Some years there will be outbreaks and other years you won't see anything, but the virus isn't going anywhere."

Colorado's wet June and hot July, its abundant rivers and soggy pastureland, have allowed mosquitoes to flourish. And the culex tarsalis, a common mosquito in the state, has proven an efficient disease carrier.

Most cases have been confined to the eastern prairie and areas along the front range of the Rocky Mountains.

Mosquitoes haven't made it to higher mountain communities, where colder weather keeps them at bay. But there are reports of the virus on the western slope of the Rockies in places like Grand Junction along the Colorado River.

"Our drought broke in the northeast part of the state, where we had perfect weather for mosquito breeding," Pape said. "This could all be a water issue."

Another reason for the high number of cases could be the reporting. Colorado lists all of its West Nile cases, while many other states record only the more severe incidents in which someone develops meningitis or encephalitis.

About 78% of Colorado cases are the milder West Nile fever, which shows flu-like symptoms for a few days before disappearing.

Only one of every 150 people who contract the disease develops severe enough symptoms to cause death, officials said. Most of those who die are elderly.

"This is a preventable disease," said Dr. Mark Wallace, director of the Weld County Department of Health. "Look around your property for standing water, don't over-water your plants, don't be out at dusk without repellent. If you get sick, don't overreact. Most of us will be just fine."

Still, fear persists, and West Nile has no cure.

At Kaiser Permanente, with medical centers throughout Colorado, there has been a huge upsurge in calls.

"A few weeks ago, we had a handful, but now, on any given day, we are getting between 500 and 1,000 calls," said Dr. Gray Houlton, who runs Kaiser's regional call center in Denver. "Panic is too strong a word, but there is a lot of concern. Most who call do not have West Nile virus. If they have severe symptoms ... they get real sick with brain infections, paralysis, double vision and seizures."

West Nile virus, found in Africa, East Asia and the Middle East, was first detected in North America in 1999. It affects birds, animals and humans. Birds carry it far and wide. Mosquitoes in other locations feed on the infected birds and, in turn, transmit the virus to humans and other animals.

Birds that get the disease either die or become immune. Humans, once infected, also become immune. Which is good news for Josh Watson, who has recovered from his bout with West Nile and never wants to go through it again.

He and his wife say the sheer dumb luck of him being the first person infected in the state has led them to enter contests on the theory that good fortune may be as random as bad.

"We bought 15 lottery tickets," he said. "We also managed to win a fireplace in a contest."

But on matters of health, he's taking no more chances.

"We will never let our kids outside without insect repellent on," he said. "A lot of folks got sicker than I did with this, and my heart and prayers go out to them."

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