Western Slope feeling the bite from West Nile
Jim Caros was substitute teaching five weeks ago at Central High School when his right leg went numb and he collapsed.
The 62-year-old Grand Junction resident thought maybe he had a pinched nerve or the sudden paralysis in his leg was the result of crawling under his home to do some work over the weekend. But the blinding hip pain, headaches and swings in body temperature that came next convinced Caros to go to a doctor the next day.
That doctor sent Caros home, but he still felt terrible the day after that, Aug. 29, and went to another doctor. That physician sent Caros to St. Mary’s Hospital, where he spent nine days getting magnetic resonance imaging exams and seemingly-endless blood tests, one of which came up positive for West Nile virus.
“It was probably the worst nine days of my life,” Caros said.
Caros is one of 11 people this summer in Mesa County who had a confirmed case of West Nile Virus. About one in five people infected with West Nile become sick, so not everyone with the virus is tested. Less than 1 percent of all people with the virus develop an illness as severe as what Caros had, which turned out to be West Nile-caused encephalitis. Other serious complications of the virus are West Nile fever and West Nile-induced meningitis.
Mesa County’s southern neighbor, Delta County, leads the state in cases of West Nile encephalitis, meningitis or fever this summer with 20 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Montrose County is in second place with 19 cases as of Tuesday, the highest number of West Nile illnesses recorded in that county since the disease first appeared in Colorado in 2002.
Delta and Montrose are also the only counties in the state to report West Nile-related deaths in 2012, with one death in Delta County and two in Montrose County.
Combined, Delta, Mesa and Montrose counties are the source of more than half of all West Nile infections confirmed in humans this year. They are the only three counties in Colorado with more than 10 cases apiece of West Nile illnesses, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and three of just 17 counties statewide that have recorded any West Nile cases in 2012.
THE PERFECT TRIFECTA
So what makes this part of the state a West Nile hot bed? CDPHE spokeswoman Jan Stapleman said she hasn’t heard a specific explanation, but she speculated the department’s directions to local entities in Colorado to conduct more West Nile testing may have something to do with it.
“There is some possibility we’re seeing more cases because we’re aware of more cases because of more testing,” Stapleman said.
Zane McCallister, manager of the Grand River Mosquito Control District in Mesa County, said he believes the spike from just one case among the three counties last year has more to do with animals than testing. He said this part of the state has the trifecta needed to result in multiple West Nile cases: lots of wild birds, who spread the disease to lots of mosquitoes, who spread the disease to humans.
The central Western Slope also has the right elevation for West Nile. Culex tarsalis mosquitoes, the species most associated with West Nile in Western states, exist most often in places with an elevation of 3,000 to 6,000 feet. That leaves out mountain towns, McCallister said, and, combined with wild bird and mosquito populations, make the Western and Eastern Slopes prime spots for the mosquitoes.
SPRAY NOT THE MODERN WAY
While many mosquitoes breed in pockets of water that run off of lakes and rivers, Culex tarsalis mosquitoes prefer to spawn in more ever-present watering holes, including storm drains, swimming pools and irrigation runoff lines, because they lay fragile eggs that thrive in long-term pockets of water. The drought of 2012 had a bigger impact on breeding for other types of mosquitoes, who lay more durable eggs in areas that don’t have water yet but will at some time, like runoff areas for rising rivers and lakes.
Caros suspects he contracted the virus from a bug bite in his yard because he lives along a stretch of Main Street where water consistently rests in the gutter outside his home. He said a street-sweeper came through after he called the city of Grand Junction about the water two weeks ago but he hasn’t seen one since.
Darrell Fisher, a resident of the small Delta County town of Orchard City, said he was diagnosed with West Nile on Aug. 24. The 71-year-old also suspects he got the virus somewhere near home. A neighbor of his was diagnosed with the virus as well this summer. A woman who contracted West Nile three years and has paralysis in her leg as a result and a man diagnosed with the virus a few years ago both live within a half-mile of his house, Fisher said.
“This half-mile radius — there’s a factor there somewhere,” he said.
Fisher said he is concerned about his area and other parts of Delta County receiving adequate mosquito control. He said he pays taxes to Delta County Mosquito Control District 1 but hasn’t seen anyone spray for mosquitoes in four years. A call to the district Friday was not returned.
McCallister said spraying for adult mosquitoes is becoming more of a rarity statewide as more districts attack mosquitoes in their larval stage. McCallister said Environmental Protection Agency standards for new chemicals to spray for mosquitoes are making the introduction or continuation of sprays more costly. He said hitting mosquitoes before they mature is “more effective and more efficient.”
“There’s a perception that unless you’re fogging or spraying, you’re not doing mosquito control. We’re trying to fight that perception,” he said. “There’s a perception we have to fly over Grand Junction in an airplane and dive-bomb the area with lots of pesticides, but that’s not the treatment of the day.”
WEST NILE PATIENTS VARY
While Fisher said he is doing better now and is on track for a full recovery, Caros’ doctor said his paralysis may never go away. Caros has convinced himself he will prove that doctor wrong, but if he doesn’t, he has been looking into braces and custom orthotics to help him go back to his active lifestyle once he has the energy.
The avid surfer and skier was knocked flat by the pain that surged through his hip and still has paralysis down his right leg, which causes him to use a walker or a cane to get around. He said he doesn’t want pity, he just wants people to understand the spectrum of reactions to West Nile and recognize some of the more common symptoms: painful headaches, fever, rash, body aches, fatigue, swollen lymph glands and, in more severe cases, stiff neck, paralysis, coma, disorientation, convulsions and muscle weakness.
“If I had not gone to the hospital, who knows what would have happened,” Caros said in his living room this week, sitting with his wife and now-caregiver, Jeanette. “If I hadn’t gone, I probably wouldn’t be here.”