In 2003, Brandon Hill was a 32 construction worker for Southard Corporation in Kansas, putting in doors and working on patios. A mosquito, acting as an infection vector for West Nile virus, nearly killed him.
About West Nile
West Nile has been in Kansas since 2002, so it wasn’t as large concern locally at the time that Brandon was bit. “I didn’t really heed the warnings, even though my sister had told me about it,” Brandon says.
Those who are bit by an infected mosquito have a an 80% chance of showing few or even no symptoms. The won’t transmit the virus to anyone else by normal contact, although blood transfusions could potentially infect someone. Additionally, women who are pregnant or nursing run a very small risk of passing the virus on to their baby. Unfortunately for Brandon, he fell in that 20% who showed symptoms.
Of those who are infected, roughly 20% will show flu-like symptoms:
- High fever or chills
- Excessive sweating
- Join Pain
The flu-like symptoms take between 2 – 15 days to appear, and usually last around 6 days. However, in some cases, it’s much worse than a flu.
Brandon didn’t just get flu-like symptoms. “I had three days of dry heaves and fever before seeking medical attention.” Brandon ended up on the floor, dehydrated, partially paralyzed, and unable to hold up his head. Thanks to a call from a friend, his sister got him to the ER.
Initially the ER sent Brandon home with a diagnosis of being a flu and sent him home, so Rae Lyn took him to her house. Over the next few hours she helplessly watched Brandon’s health rapidly decline as he became more lethargic and confused with his speech becoming slurred, and he began having difficulty swallowing. Rae Lyn worked through the symptoms and diagnosed him with West Nile Encephalitis. She took him back to the hospital and had him admitted even though attending physician refused to believe it was West Nile until the next day, when the spinal tap came back positive for the virus. The second day in the hospital, Brandon was placed on a ventilator, and family was told to prepare for the worst as he may never come off it or survive. Brandon spend 62 days in the hospital, which included five weeks in the Neurocritical Intensive Care Unit on life support and a feeding tube. During that time, Brandon had lost over 50 pounds, and he left the hospital with grim expectations of permanent paralysis of his dominant right arm and hand.
Next, there was a long recovery process. Brandon spent several hours everyday with his physical therapist, occupational therapist, and chiropractor for nearly a year to slowly regain use of his right arm and hand. Years later, there are still some lasting effects: “I have leg cramps at night, and before West Nile I didn’t, which is weird. My arms have atrophied, so my arms are only about half the size they were before I had West Nile. But, I’m fully functional.”
Brandon no longer works construction. In 2008, Brandon graduated from Occupational Therapy Program Newman University with a number of awards. You can learn more about Brandon’s journey in Newman University Magazine. Furthermore, Brandon will graduate from Texas Women’s University School of Occupational Therapy this December 2016 with his masters degree.
The Center for Disease Control shows that from 1999 – 2014, Kansas has had 519 reported cases of West Nile. While the risk of infection isn’t extremely high, it’s high enough that following proper prevention rules is worthwhile, particularly considering how extreme West Nile can be in some cases.
Talking with Brandon Hill, he gave a piece of advice you wouldn’t typically associate with preventing infection from a virus we normally associate with mosquitoes: if you see a dead bird on your property, use a plastic back to pick it up and dispose of it. Though, do check with your state – some states are using a reporting process for dead birds to test for potential cases of West Nile in the area, along with mosquito testing.
Why birds? The CDC has a great diagram of the infection cycle of West Nile – while mosquitoes infect humans, they also infect birds. In some species, the bird ends up with high levels of the virus, which in turn ends up fed upon by more mosquitoes, allowing further transmission of the virus. “Blackbirds, crows, hawks, blue jays, all seem to have higher levels of the West Nile virus,” Brandon told me.
Of course, the normal practices for avoiding mosquito bites still apply:
- Empty sources of standing water where mosquitoes may breed
- Use a bug spray containing DEET
- Wear light colored, long sleeved clothing
“I think the general public needs to take better precautions,” Brandon explained. “Not that you need to freak out about it and never go outside, but take reasonable precautions. West Nile isn’t the only mosquito borne viruses – there’s encephalitis, Zika, and a few others. By taking appropriate precautions for West Nile, it also means you’re also takes precautions for all the rest of the West Nile related diseases.”[sc name=”disclaimer”]