Many Oklahomans will remember in 2007 when the state saw 107 cases of West Nile virus and eight associated deaths.
Over the past few weeks, the state has seen 31 cases of the mosquito-borne illness, more cases than if you added up all reported West Nile disease reports from 2008 to 2011.
“We are concerned that we are currently outpacing 2007,” said Kristy Bradley, state epidemiologist at the state Health Department. “So if we match the frequency of the number of case by week that we (had) in 2007, we may have 200 cases or greater in Oklahoma by the season's end.”
First identified in the U.S. in 1999, West Nile virus is generally spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, according to the state Health Department. West Nile virus season runs from May to November.
Symptoms of the disease range significantly. People who are 50 and older are at the highest risk of developing the more severe symptoms of West Nile. In Oklahoma, most West Nile virus cases this year have occurred in residents older than 40 years of age with 26 percent occurring among people 70 to 79 years old.
‘Really kind of scary'
Bob Matthews is a part of that 26 percent. Before the West Nile struck, the 77-year-old retired Heritage Hall principal was busy living. He was an estate sale aficionado. He was the family cook, known for his shepherd's pie. He had an impressive garden, which the drought has stolen since his illness.
“I was a house nanny, and I loved it,” he said. “And I am ready to get back to it.”
Matthews isn't sure when he was bitten by the mosquito that infected him. A few weeks ago, he started feeling dizzy. After a few visits to the emergency room and a few misdiagnoses, doctors found that Matthews had contracted the West Nile virus.
Up to 20 percent of the people who become infected have symptoms such as fever, headache, and body aches, nausea, vomiting and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach and back, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms last for a few days, but some become sick for several weeks.
But about one in 150 people infected with West Nile virus develop severe illness, according to the CDC.
Matthews is the one in the 150. Symptoms for the more severe cases of West Nile include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis, according to the CDC.
These symptoms can last for several weeks, and the neurological effects might be permanent.
By his second week in the hospital, Matthews could not move or open his eyes. This was the point where B.J. Matthews thought she was going to lose her husband of 46 years.
“For a wife, it's really kind of scary when you all of a sudden realize you're incapacitated,” she said.
B.J. Matthews celebrates the small things. Two days ago, her husband couldn't move his legs. But on Friday afternoon, he moves one of his legs and wiggles his toes.
“That could not be done until two days ago,” she said.
For now, Bob Matthews must depend on others. He lay in his bed at an Oklahoma City skilled nursing center as B.J. Matthews helped him scratch his arm.
Down. A little lower. Not as fast.
He apologizes for being impatient. She explains he isn't being impatient. The two bicker like a married couple that love each other. She explains he doesn't need to apologize. He's allowed to be angry.
“It's one thing to look around and see other people being fed,” Bob Matthews said on Friday afternoon. “But when you're there yourself, and you can't say, ‘Hey, that's not another person, that's me,' it hurts.”
Bob and B.J. Matthews have eaten a lot of Braum's in the past few weeks. She lets him know she found a ham hock in the freezer. She'll make that and some green beans and new potatoes for dinner soon.
For now, the prognosis is uncertain. The family lives on prayers and patience, one day at a time.
“When you see just a glimmer of improvement, it makes your day,” she said. “You never think wiggling a toe is really going to be something exciting, but it is.”