West Nile Virus

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West Nile Story: 400 Days In Hospital, A New View Of Health Care (And Life)

By Dr. Annie Brewster
Guest contributor

In August of 2012, Charlie Atkinson was bitten by a mosquito in the garden outside his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Charlie Atkinson, 78, at home, is still recovering from West Nile Virus. (Courtesy)

Charlie Atkinson, 78, at home, is still recovering from West Nile Virus. (Courtesy)

From that bite, against the odds, he contracted West Nile Virus. It nearly killed him.

Charlie was in a coma for more than a week, paralyzed in his left arm and right leg. He spent more than 400 days total in two hospitals. He is still recovering.

Before the fateful insect bite, Charlie, married, with four children and nine grandchildren, was incredibly active. He was an avid tennis player, a self-taught pianist, an educator and entrepreneur who started numerous companies. West Nile Virus changed that life.

I met Charlie, now 78, on a snowy December day at his home, now retrofitted with a wheelchair ramp and a stair lift. We spoke in the sunny dining room, which has been transformed into a bedroom, complete with a hospital bed and Charlie’s ventilator equipment (he has a tracheostomy and is on the ventilator at night). Charlie lay propped up on his pillows as we spoke, and his warm handshake and bright eyes made me feel right at home.

A self-described “Just Do It” guy, Charlie fought his way back from near death with amazing determination. He surpassed the predictions of the medical community and has continued to make progress: he can now get around with a roller walker and even take steps on his own with a cane.

But beyond his physical comeback, Charlie’s story is also about learning to be a smarter patient; questioning the conventional medical wisdom and seeking out health care providers who are truly compassionate.

Listen to Charlie here: 

West Nile Virus is an arthropod-borne virus (an arbovirus), most often spread by mosquitoes between the months of June and September. It has been found in 48 states (all but Hawaii and Alaska) and in the District of Columbia. It was first detected in North America in 1999 and has continued to spread since that time. In 2013, the CDC reported 2,374 cases and 114 deaths. Continue reading

Video: What’s Up With West Nile Virus This Heavy Year?

Drought? Climate change? Mutation? Why is this year turning out to be such a banner year for the dangerous West Nile Virus? The CDC is predicting a possible record year, with 1590 cases already reported nationwide, and Massachusetts has seen at least eight confirmed cases thus far.

Oops, strike that. These numbers are changing fast and we just got in the latest at noon today: 1,993 reported cases of West Nile virus disease in people, including 87 deaths. The state Department of Public Health offers a handy map of mosquito-borne illness here. See a snapshot of today’s map below.

Above, Dr. Sharone Green, a West Nile Virus expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who is working on a vaccine, discusses the concern about the unusually early spate of cases, and shares the only real prevention at this point: Try not to get bitten by mosquitoes, particularly at dawn and dusk. She says in part:

This year, we seem to have quite a large number of cases of West Nile Virus at a much earlier time in the year than has been seen in previous years. The biggest epidemic year was in 2003, when there were almost 9,000 cases reported; This year we now have 1590 cases, with 65 cases of death, and that is concerning because it is so early in the year that this is actually going to be the biggest epidemic year seen.

It is not clear at the moment why. I suspect that will be a big cause of research for people in the future. However, early on, they’re thinking climate change may be the cause. There’s been a lot of drought, and what happens in a drought is, you wind up with these small pools of recurring water related to dry-wet-dry-wet, and the [virus-carrying] mosquitoes really like kind of grungy water that’s sitting around. And so theres been a lot more virus. The heat is helpng the virus to replicate in birds as well as in the mosquitoes, and then man is what we call a dead-end host: We get it by accident.

The CDC’s West Nile Virus information is here, including tips on getting rid of standing water and fixing screens.

First West Nile Virus-Positive Mosquitoes Detected in Boston

This just in from the Boston Public Health Commission:

For the first time this summer, mosquito pools in Boston have tested positive for West Nile Virus (WNV), the Boston Public Health Commission reported today. Two positive mosquito pools were found in West Roxbury. There have been no confirmed human cases of WNV in Boston this year.

“It’s that time of year when it’s not unexpected to find mosquitoes infected with the West Nile Virus in the Boston area,” said Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Infectious Disease Bureau at the Public Health Commission.

While WNV is most commonly transmitted to humans by the bite of a mosquito infected with the virus, WNV poses very low risk to humans, Dr. Barry said. But even that low risk can be reduced if people take a few simple steps to protect themselves and their families.

Those steps include using insect repellant when outdoors, especially from dusk to dawn when mosquitoes are more likely to be biting and, when possible, wearing clothing with long sleeves and pants, she said. “People should also mosquito-proof their home by making sure that their window and door screens are in good repair to prevent mosquitoes from getting into the house,” Dr. Barry said. Continue reading