Two locals recount experiences with West Nile virus
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Area health officials, fresh from dealing with the international concern surrounding the recent H1N1 pandemic, also known as swine flu, are now gearing up for what has become an annual health-care issue – West Nile virus.
Originally identified in Africa more than half a century ago, the virus first appeared in the U.S. in summer 1999 and has been found in all of the 48 contiguous states, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. It is transmitted by mosquito bites, and has infected a number of people on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Two local cases from a couple of years ago show the range and severity of symptoms, as well as widely different durations that people experience once they have contracted the disease.
For Norman Braden, 63, and formerly of Rifle but now living in Clifton, it was a relatively mild case and lasted a mercifully short time when he came down with the disease in 2007.
But for Joyce Webb of Silt, 48, who was bitten that same summer and has been suffering from a variety of symptoms until just recently, it has been a “debilitating” experience.
“I’m great,” she said enthusiastically this week. “And I’m so glad I can say that.”
Braden, a semi-truck driver by trade, said he never was sure exactly when or where he was when he got bitten. He was living in Rifle at the time, although he thinks it was either during a camping trip on Grand Mesa or while hiking on a trail along the banks of the Colorado River near Clifton.
“I grew up in Wisconsin, where you just dealt with it,” he said of his preference to stay away from insect repellents, and to not notice when he gets bitten.
But this time, he recalled, “I was in bed for four days. All I did was sleep. And I’m not a sleeping person. I go about six hours a night.”
As the symptoms worsened, he said, “I was delirious. I had fever, cold, chills. I was a sick puppy.”
When he finally decided to go to a doctor, he was diagnosed with West Nile virus and told to continue to get rest and drink lots of fluids, because as a virus the disease does not respond to antibiotics.
“It hung on,” he continued. “Boy, I’ll tell you, I’ll bet it was a week and a half before I got over it. I’ve never really had a relapse from it.”
And he still refuses to indulge in insect repellents, “because I can never get it again. I went through two heart attacks and the West Nile. I should be around for a while.”
For Joyce Webb, she knew fairly quickly that the mosquito bite she received while working outside near her home in Silt was not a normal bite, most immediately because it was annoying and very itchy.
Webb had been using a Cutter insect repellent gel on her face and hair because she already had been stung by three bees that month – August – and she was surprised to have been bitten at all.
It wasn’t until a week had passed, and she started getting severe headaches, back pain and an inexplicable fatigue that she went for help, first to a chiropractor and then to a doctor. By then she also had a red, bumpy rash all over her body, her mind had gotten sluggish and she couldn’t focus her vision. The doctor put her on antibiotics at first.
“I was actually scared,” she told a Post Independent reporter at the time (Webb is the wife of former PI reporter Dennis Webb). “I couldn’t focus, and I couldn’t think. For … five days, I was zero functioning. I was pretty much sleeping the whole time. My head was pounding, and aspirin and Tylenol didn’t help.”
When she returned to the doctor, he asked her if she had been bitten by a mosquito, concluded she had West Nile virus, and for more than five weeks she battled with the fever and an infection that ultimately settled in her lungs. By October she had begun working again, but still felt ill.
“I had it pretty severely,” Webb said on Monday. “I never went back to normal.” Her head continued to ache, she got strange sensations up and down her spine and she began experiencing advanced symptoms of osteoarthritis in her neck and shoulders, which she said apparently was activated by the West Nile virus.
She explained that her sister has rheumatoid arthritis, and that the doctors said those with family histories of arthritic ailments typically can have a worse time with West Nile than others.
She said that she had suffered from a weakened immune system “all my life,” and had just gone on a stressful trip, which may have left her more susceptible to the virus than normal.
About two months ago, at the urging of a friend, she went to a local “naturopath,” Aarin Meager-Benson of Two Rivers Natural Health, an alternative-medicine practice that Webb said relies on changes in diet craniosacral massage, exercise, lifestyle and behavior patterns and herbal remedies to help the body strengthen its natural defenses against disease.
And that, she said, did the trick.
“I’m, like, 99 percent back to normal,” Webb said in a phone interview this week, explaining that “even the arthritis symptoms are just not there any more.”
Health officials say that, thanks to the heavy rains of May and early June, mosquitoes have experienced something of a population explosion and that those going outside should be cautious.
The Culex tarsalis mosquito is the main carrier of the virus. To prevent being bitten, health officials urge people to eliminate all standing water around their homes where mosquitoes breed and to wear protective clothing and insect repellent to ward off potential bites – especially during the hours of dawn and dusk.
“There is no vaccine against the [West Nile] virus,” said Garfield County Public Health Nurse Mary Meisner. “You need to take ibuprofen, Tylenol, lots of water and juices. You need to listen to your body and rest in a quiet, dark place because your body needs time to repair itself.”
Sunglasses will ward off the headaches, and fluids and protein-rich foods, such as legumes and nuts, should be eaten, Meisner said.
The most serious cases can lead to encephalitis and other inflammatory illnesses, which can be fatal.
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