We've been writing about the mosquito-borne West Nile virus since 1999, when it first turned up in New York City and began sickening and killing people. It was the first West Nile outbreak ever in the U.S., and it was followed by piles of dead crows and other birds, and a rapid spread across the continent. It is now endemic here.
The assault peaked in Maryland in 2003, with 73 human cases and 230 equine cases. So far this summer, human infections have been reported in 36 states (dark green on the map, below). Of the 268 cases reported nationwide so far, 13 have been fatal.
But aside from the occasional obituary mention, we have rarely been able to tell the human victim's side of the story. State health authorities release little data - and no names - on the cases they know about - 12 so far this year in Maryland - and don't know anything about the cases that aren't diagnosed. (Most infections produce no symptoms; some cause flu-like symptoms, and fewer than 1 percent result in serious "neuroinvasive" cases, with inflammation of the membranes around the brain or spinal cord.) Lisa Simeone
, of Baltimore
, believes she may have been the lone West Nile case diagnosed in the city so far this season. And she agreed to tell her story:
"I was apparently the first confirmed case this summer of West Nile Virus in Baltimore City. I think 'confirmed' is the operative word here, because I have to believe other people must've gotten it, too, only they were never diagnosed.
"I was diagnosed in July. Was sick for the whole month. And I'm 54, which ... means I had a higher risk of developing more severe symptoms, which, luckily, I didn't.
"Every summer I get so consumed by mosquitoes if I don't slather every inch of myself with DEET (citronella, garlic, "natural" repellents -- all worthless) or wear long sleeves/pants that I rarely venture outside in normal summer clothes. I don't eat in outdoor cafes, much as I love them, I don't sit on our back deck, much as I would like to (neither do our neighbors sit on theirs), because the mosquitoes are just too much. I wear shrugs (little mini-sweaters) over sleeveless dresses. Nevertheless, I still go out occasionally unprotected -- walking 15 feet to the trash can and back, which takes all of about 7 seconds; hanging the wash on the line in the middle of the day, moving constantly; riding my bike, though I'd think the wind whipping off one's skin would be protection enough. Despite my precautions, I git bitten every summer.
"This summer I had a nasty cold. No big deal. The cold itself healed, but headaches, fever, fatigue, and occasional muscle aches replaced it. Because I'm used to headaches (lifetime of migraines), I didn't think much of it except that sometimes it would go away completely -- I'd wake up without one -- but by mid-morning it'd be back with a vengeance and get worse as the day progressed. No pain relievers worked. Sometimes the pain was so bad I felt nauseated. Mostly I felt stunned. The headache was not only all-consuming, but so forward in my face that I thought it must be a sinus infection. Assuming it was viral, I thought I'd just wait it out (I'm not one of these people who abuses antibiotics).
"But after three weeks I still wasn't getting better. So I finally saw my doc. When I took off my ubiquitous shrug and she saw all the bites my arms, she said, 'I wonder if you have West Nile Virus.' Her brother had just had it in Colorado, so it was on her mind. (Plus, she's a smart cookie.) She ordered a blood test. Sure enough, I had WNV antibodies. There's nothing to do about it, as you know, except wait 'til your body kicks it. Which mine did, in about 4-5 weeks total.
"I first saw tiger mosquitoes in our back yard years ago. Their black and orange stripes [actually, black and white - FR] are unmistakable. Hubby used to joke, 'Well, if anyone gets West Nile Virus, it'll be you.' I don't get sick often, but when I do, it's usually something weird.
"But hey, at least I didn't get encephalitis! (Though can Dengue Fever be far behind?)
"Of course, it's also possible that a mosquito got in the house, and I was being repeatedly bitten by it. Who knows? I counted the bites on my arms -- 19 on the right, 15 on the left. No, it's not pretty. Thank god for shrugs and make-up."
(PHOTO: Asian tiger mosquito, Mike Raupp, University of Maryland)