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West Nile Claims Second Victim

San Bernardino County man's death brings toll in California to two. His widow urges people to take precautions against mosquito bites.

August 02, 2004|Regine Labossiere | Times Staff Writer

A 75-year-old man in San Bernardino County has become the second person in California to die of West Nile virus, officials said Sunday.

Morris Sternberg, who lived in Grand Terrace, died Saturday night after two weeks in a coma at Redlands Community Hospital, according to the San Bernardino County coroner's office. Sternberg had been suffering from several ailments, including dehydration, and tests confirmed he had been infected with West Nile and died of encephalitis.

Sternberg's wife, Phyllis, didn't want to talk Sunday, but she did want to send out an important message, said Farah Taleb, a family friend.

"She just wants to tell everybody to protect their kids and use some kind of spray [to combat mosquitoes, which carry the virus]," Taleb said.

Taleb had been taking care of Phyllis and spending every day at the Sternberg home since he entered the hospital.

The family suspects Sternberg became infected while lying in a hammock in the frontyard, Taleb said. She said she found an unopened bottle of mosquito repellent in the living room.

In addition to his wife, Taleb said, Sternberg is survived by two grown sons.

In June, James Damiano, a 57-year-old Fullerton resident, became the first Californian to die from the disease. Damiano died of heart failure and viral encephalitis but had been ill for years, undergoing dialysis treatments three times a week, his family has said.

This year more than 50 people in California have been infected with West Nile virus in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial, Kern and Fresno counties. Infected birds and mosquitoes have been found in other counties, health officials have reported.

Health officials have admitted that they mishandled the Orange County fatality when they announced the cause of Damiano's death last week before revealing it to his family. Family members learned of the cause of death when they were contacted by a Los Angeles Times reporter, they said. Orange County health officials have apologized and said they are taking steps to ensure that families are notified before the agency issues a public statement. There was no such problem in the aftermath of Sternberg's death, officials said.

Humans get the disease from mosquitoes, which feed on infected birds. Most people infected with the virus don't know it, but 20% of those infected have flu-like symptoms, typically headaches and fever, weakness and a rash. About one in 150 infected people contract meningitis or encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain. Less than 1% of those infected with the disease die.

Health officials have said that the elderly and people with weak immune systems are those most affected.

"With the elderly population, they may have other medical problems

There is no human vaccine and no treatment for the infection, but health officials encourage people to take such precautions as properly maintaining swimming pools and removing all stagnant water on their property to eliminate mosquito breeding places. People are also advised to wear insect repellent containing DEET, and loose-fitting long sleeves and pants at dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes most often feed.

Family and friends were surprised by the death of Sternberg, who was in good health before falling ill with the virus.

"It's a shocker when that kind of thing happens," said Roy Nix, a family friend who lives three houses from the Sternbergs' Dos Rios Avenue home. Nix said the neighborhood, less than 30 miles from two San Bernardino cities that were recently sprayed with larvicides because of West Nile, hadn't been overly concerned about the virus before Sternberg's death.

"We knew the virus was around, but it had seemed to be, up until then, more a threat to birds and horses than to humans," Nix said.

Health officials predicted that West Nile virus would have a major effect on California this year, after its migration across the country. It first appeared in New York in 1999 and has since infected about 15 million and killed about 600 nationwide. West Nile first was detected in California last year, when there were three reported cases of infection. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 265 people have been infected this year in 18 states, and Sternberg's is the seventh death in the country.

Local vector control districts have been spraying larvicide over water sources for years, trying to limit the mosquito population in preparation for the virus' arrival. But this year residents and other government officials also are taking note of the disease. In the past month, vector control districts have sprayed fine mists of larvicide in parts of Chino and Fontana, where five members of one family were found infected with the virus.

Weeks after the state's first West Nile-related death, the Orange County Health Care Agency added the disease to its list of reportable illnesses, which would help the state document the number of victims.

Ventura County property owners voted last week to add $4 per home to their annual mosquito-control assessment, hoping to raise about $850,000 to fund the vector control program.

And state legislators announced last week the reversal of an earlier proposal that would have cut funding to the state's vector control districts by up to $12 million.

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