Deadly Bug Bites: West Nile Virus
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DOCTOR: Mr. Hinchley, how are you doing today? How’s your strength?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dennis Hinchley is in a Colorado rehabilitation hospital, trying to recover from a bug bite.
DOCTOR: Bring your wrist up. Bring your hand up.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hinchley, was a normal healthy 55-year-old Colorado resident, was rendered partially paralyzed this month when he was bitten by a mosquito that carried the West Nile Virus. Hinchley doesn’t remember the bite. He only remembers the stiff neck, skin rash, and confusion that sent him to the hospital.
DENNIS HINCHLEY: When I went to the hospital, I had blurred vision, I was throwing up, and I had spots all over. I was dysfunctional, like I couldn’t even tell what was going on for sure.
LAURA HINCHLEY: It’s hard to see Dennis like this. He’s been my partner for 35 years. To see him like this just devastated myself and our whole family.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Eric Hartman is overseeing Hinchley’s therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Aurora.
DR. ERIC HARTMAN: He’s one of these rare people that ended up with some neurologic involvement of this virus. He had a combination of encephalitis, which is an infection of the brain, and meningitis, which is an infection of layers around the brain. At this point what we’re dealing with is a result of the damage to his central nervous system. We call it flaccid paralysis because he has no muscle tone; they are weak and limp.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s cases like Hinchley’s that have Colorado health officials on the offensive. As the peak season for West Nile Virus approaches, Colorado has the worst outbreak in the country, and five times more infections then the next highest state. The alarming numbers have bug trappers fanned out across the state, inspecting any standing water for infected eggs.
SPOKESMAN: Looks like we’ve got a couple in here. There’s one right there. Three there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Michael McGinnis runs Colorado Mosquito Control.
MICHAEL McGINNIS: We can go to them and treat them hopefully and catch a lot of them before they have a chance to hatch out, start flying around, biting people, and potentially transmitting virus.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: West Nile Virus is a bird virus. Health official believes it came to the eastern United States a few years ago by way of a bird. Colorado’s outbreak shows how the virus has moved West.
SPOKESMAN: Put some down here, John.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Ned Calonge is chief medical officer for Colorado’s Department of Health & Environment.
DR. NED CALONGE, Colorado Department of Health & Environment: A mosquito will bite an infected bird, will transmit the virus to another bird. Then it’s actually following bird migration patterns across the United States. But it’s complex in that you also have to have mosquitoes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And it’s mosquitoes that give the virus to people, so health officials are setting mosquito traps to better track the virus.
SPOKESMAN: They’ll just fly in here and get sucked down in the trap. Then I’ll just pull it off, seal it up, and take it back.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: As West Nile takes its natural course, infection rates have dropped on the East Coast where infected birds have either died or become immune but’ in Colorado the virus is only in the second year. Traditionally a virus is most potent here. To compound the problem this summer mosquito season has been a record setter.
MICHAEL McGINNIS: I’ve been in mosquito control going on 23 years, and really haven’t seen a year like this really ever. We’ve had a lot of moisture early, some heavy wet snows, and then followed by some very hot, dry weather in July and August. With the hot weather, they’re going through their life cycle very quickly. So it’s a real battle to keep up.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the five weeks since the first Colorado cases of West Nile were reported, health officials say eight people have died, and six hundred and ninety-nine infections have been reported. The state’s largest blood bank has begun testing their supply. In this batch four units were identified as infected with West Nile. In fact, 155 units of the overall supply has already tested positive. Most people bitten by infected mosquitoes will have no symptoms at all. Some will experience flu-like illness while only one in one hundred and fifty people with West Nile Virus, people like Dennis Hinchley, will contract the more serious disease.
SPOKESMAN: People who are more likely to have severe illness and run the risk of death with West Nile tend to be older people or people who have other illnesses or immune-compromised conditions.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: People like Maria Flores. On August 1, the 77-year-old from Greeley was the first Colorado resident to die from West Nile Virus. An immigrant from Mexico, Flores suffered from diabetes and a heart condition. Flores’ sons believe their mother was bitten here, outside her small house, were she spent her evenings tending to her garden. It is a job that has now fallen to Maria’s son Elias Flores, and his son, Geraldo.
SPOKESMAN: She loved plants and loved flowers.
SPOKESMAN: She really enjoyed being outside, being outdoors.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In a state that attracts so many outdoor enthusiasts, health officials here are spending much of their energy informing people that West Nile is a preventable disease.
DR. NED CALONGE: You need to avoid spending a lot of time during peak feeding times, which are dawn and dusk for the mosquito that we’re particularly concerned about. If you do, go out, wear in long sleeves and pants, and for exposed parts of the skin, use deep-containing repellants. If you can keep from being bitten, you keep from getting West Nile Virus.
SPOKESPERSON: Thirty seconds.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And at the state fair they’re not taking any chances. Every morning at dawn well before visitors arrive fair grounds are sprayed. Visitors are encouraged to buy bug repellant.
NANCY LUTZ: You put this on a light bulb outside, and it is supposed to attract the mosquitoes within 300 yards and kill them. It should last for weeks on your light bulb so we’re going to give it a whirl.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many appear aware of the dangers.
LESLEY LAIRD: We don’t go out at the peak morning and afternoon hours. When we do go out we put on mosquito spray with DEET. We keep the water away from the house. And if there’s a mosquito we run like heck.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Meanwhile, Laura and Dennis Hinchley continue to their daily struggle. Unfortunately for the Hinchleys, doctors have few answers for when and if Dennis Hinchley will regain the movement he had before West Nile Virus.