West Nile virus coming to California via mosquito | TahoeDailyTribune.com

West Nile virus coming to California via mosquito

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

The West Nile virus is expected to arrive in force in California this year by way of infected birds and mosquitoes that feed on the birds, state health officials say.

The first Californian to contract the often fatal virus, a former resident of Incline Village, said warnings that the virus is headed this way should be heeded. Because, he said, there is no treatment for the illness the virus can bring, which can leave someone at death’s door.

Garrett Jones, 57, a money manager, had just returned home to the East Bay last September after a weeklong business trip to Chicago. He stayed in Chicago during an outbreak of the West Nile virus that followed a period of wet weather.

Jones spent one of his days in the suburbs where he jogged by a park flooded by the heavy rains. Standing water can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It was the only day during his trip he went without sleeves and pants and he believes he was bitten by an infected mosquito that day. Jones never determined where he was bitten.

Back home the avid 49er fan was looking forward to watching one of the first football games of the season — the 49ers against the N.Y. Giants. But by the afternoon Jones became uncharacteristically tired. He lay down and didn’t wake up until the next day.

“The next morning I felt kind of weird,” Jones said by phone from the Bay Area. “My wife wanted me to sign my name to a check. Normally I can make that happen, but I was all over the place, didn’t have any control on the thing.”

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Jones woke up in the hospital diagnosed with a case of encephalitis, swelling of the brain. He said his wife suggested he be tested for West Nile. The result came back positive.

The four days he spent in a hospital are a blur. Jones only remembers two medical procedures.

“The two things I remember very clearly were the spinal tap and the MRI,” Jones said. “Two things I wish I could forget.”

He even spoke to one of his daughter’s best friends who visited him at the hospital, but Jones said he has no recollection of the conversation.

It took Jones, who in part credits his full recovery to alternative medicines, several weeks to feel well again. His vision was off for a while and he avoided direct sunlight because it gave him an uncomfortable feeling. Jones said he didn’t realize how serious his illness was until his wife told him he had almost died.

“Mosquitoes and bee stings, I grew up with that stuff,” Jones said. “It’s not a big deal but this is really serious, not something to take lightly.

“If it were hummingbirds coming up and piercing you in the neck, that’s not so horrible — at least you’ve got a chance of seeing them coming. But a mosquito bite, that’s just something that happens. That’s the thing that’s spooky about it.”

With the threat of the West Nile imminent, Ginger Huber, Tahoe division manager at El Dorado County Department of Environmental Management, is calling on residents to take steps now to prevent the spread of the virus. Steps include eliminating pockets of stagnant water, keeping an eye out for dead birds and vaccinating horses, which are at great risk to the virus.

“The mosquito larvae are out there already,” said Huber, who is in charge of Vector Control, a group that kills mosquitoes at South Shore. “But most of those are snowmelt mosquitoes that typically (don’t carry the virus). Culex (the type that do) probably will arrive more like May or June.”

Technicians at Vector two weeks ago began to attack pockets of mosquito larvae, an operation that will continue for the next few months. Huber said she does not believe the large number of retaining ponds in place to capture runoff at Lake Tahoe translate to Tahoe being more vulnerable to the West Nile than other places.

“I don’t think our risk is any higher than any other place else in the state,” Huber said. “The detention basins are statewide projects by Caltrans and wetlands are being restored all over the state of California.”

Huber serves as chairwoman of the El Dorado County West Nile Virus Task Force. Beginning last year, all county residents who contract viral meningitis and encephalitis were tested for West Nile. No one tested positive.

Human surveillance will continue this year, as it will continue for birds and horses, Huber said. Other than Jones, who is believed to have contracted the virus out of state, at least one case of the West Nile was reported last year in an older woman who lives outside Los Angeles.

Senior citizens, infants and people who suffer with immune disorders are most susceptible to the virus.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com