Don't Let West Nile Bite!Jul 28, 2023 03:54PM ● By April Fitzgerald
Story update 8/2/2023: Delta County Health Department is reporting the first confirmed human case of West Nile Virus (WNV) this year. The individual is a male in his 30s from the North Fork area. Click here for updates.
What does a dream retirement look like? For Len and Lorie Cribbs, it was a three-day golf tournament, a Jeep trip to Yankee Boy Basin and hiking in Cimarron all in one week. Such activities were among the reasons the couple decided to retire in Montrose from Cincinnati, Ohio. Unfortunately, that week in July 2022 was the last normal week they’ve had.
Within a few days, Len came down with flu-like symptoms. He was achy and tired.
“All I wanted to do was sleep,” said Len, 69.
The couple sought medical treatment right away.
“We had a tele-doc appointment, and they said it was probably COVID,” said Lorie, 62.
However, after about three days, Len’s symptoms worsened, topped off by a 104-degree fever.
Lorie loaded Len up in the car and took him to the ER. He was quickly admitted for “life-threatening conditions,” according to the hospital paperwork. COVID was the first suspect.
“It took a while for them to move on from that,” said Len.
The medical team conducted multiple tests. Finally, they did blood tests and a spinal tap, which revealed Len had spinal meningitis caused by West Nile Virus (WNV).
SYMPTOMS & LONG-TERM EFFECTS
WNV is common during mosquito season, which runs from summer to fall. It’s caused by the bite of an infected mosquito.
In Colorado, most human cases of West Nile virus are reported in August and September. Although only one out of 150 people are severely affected, adults over 60 are at higher risk.
“Len was one of our most severe cases,” said Montrose County Communicable Disease and Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Lisa Gallegos.
The days following Len’s diagnosis were a whirlwind.
“I barely knew what was going on the entire time,” Len shared. “I couldn’t walk by myself. Lorie had to help me. I basically slept the whole time.”
Len’s weakness and lack of awareness are symptoms of severe WNV. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that serious cases cause muscle weakness and disorientation, or a stupor. Other symptoms include fever, headaches, neck stiffness, coma, tremors, convulsions, vision loss, numbness and paralysis.
Once his medical team had a confirmed diagnosis, they treated Len with IV antiviral medications. After being hospitalized for four days, he was admitted to Colorow Care Center in Olathe for rehab.
At Colorow, Len recalls sleeping 18-20 hours a day. He also began occupational and physical therapy to help him walk independently again.
“My body was just so weak,” he said.
Perhaps even more frustrating than his physical limitations was an ongoing mental fogginess. About two weeks after he contracted WNV, basic mental tasks proved difficult for him.
“Simple things like matching symbols—things that you would think a toddler could do—gave me a lot of issues because of brain fog,” said Len, who has a PhD in chemistry.
Finally, Len was released home, but his symptoms had not resolved. He continued to experience brain fog and fatigue, as well as vertigo.
It wasn’t until late fall that Len started to feel more like himself.
“I actually played a few rounds of golf in November and December, and we skied five days in January and February,” he said.
Although he was improving, Len began to worry that he would never regain his previous state of health.
“I felt as though I would probably have ongoing symptoms for the rest of my life,” he said.
In May, Len’s fears were realized when he came down with severe shortness of breath. Back at the hospital, he was diagnosed with asthma and prescribed continuous oxygen and other medications, which Len believes is related to WNV.
“Asthma is inflammation,” said Len. “I’ve never had lung issues in my life, and no family history.”
Len’s experience with WNV has changed the way that he and Lorie plan their lives.
“We can’t plan long term anymore; it’s more day to day,” said Lorie. “[Len] was supposed to be in Alaska next week on a dream trip.”
Still Len and Lorie consider themselves fortunate. One of their neighbors who contracted WNV is experiencing ongoing paralysis.
“She was initially paralyzed from the neck down. Now it’s from the waist down,” Lorie said. “She’s in her early 60s, and she’s an active hiker like us.”
According to Gallegos, Montrose County had the highest number of positive cases of WNV in Colorado last year with 38.
“Twenty-seven of those went to the hospital and we had six deaths,” she reported.
According to Delta County Environmental Health Director Greg Rajnowski, the county had 18 positive cases and two deaths in 2022. Rajnowski’s 2022 report concluded that Mesa County had the lowest rate of WNV in the area with only four cases.
This summer, mosquitoes carrying WNV have been found near Cedaredge, but no human cases have yet been reported with the local health departments.
Officials with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) urge Coloradans to protect themselves from mosquitoes carrying WNV by using effective insect repellent, wearing protective clothing that minimizes exposed skin (spray clothes with insect repellent for extra protection), or staying indoors at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are active.
“Anytime you’re going to be outdoors, use mosquito spray with DEET,” Gallegos advised.
Additionally, Gallegos cautioned people to be aware of the risks of standing water, as mosquitoes can lay hundreds of eggs in as little as a quarter-inch. The CDC recommends all outdoor water receptacles—flowerpots, clogged gutters, rain barrels, birdbaths, toys and puddles—should be emptied weekly, or treated with larvicide.
Len believes that an irrigation ditch about 60 yards from his home could have easily been the origination site of the mosquito that changed his life. However, he’s surprised he got bitten at all.
“Lorie could have a fog of mosquitoes around her, but they never bothered me,” said Len.
See a health care provider if you develop severe headaches or begin experiencing confusion.For questions about WNV, call your county health department: Montrose County 970-964-2454, Mesa County 970-248-6900 and Delta County 970-874-2165.
FIGHT THE BITEProtect yourself from West Nile Virus by exercising the FOUR Rs.
REPEL mosquitoes using EPA-registered insect repellents containing one of the active ingredients like DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), or para-menthane-diol (PME). Always follow label instructions. Limit outdoor activities at dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.
REMOVE standing water from your home and yard to reduce mosquito breeding. Empty water from old tires, cans, flowerpots, rain gutters, rain barrels, birdbaths, toys and puddles at least once every week.
REPAIR or replace damaged window and door screens to keep mosquitoes out.
REMIND your family, friends and neighbors about mosquito safety. Mosquitoes will fly more than a mile to feed.