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Unwanted bites give Oklahoma fishing buddies West Nile virus

Bryan Painter: Christie McDonald-Hamm, epidemiologist with the Oklahoma Health Department, said there is no way to know if West Nile virus will be an issue in 2013, and if so when it will peak or if it will be as bad as last year.
by Bryan Painter Published: March 24, 2013

During summer 2012, Walt Thurn was talking with a co-worker as they walked over to the coffee machine.

All of a sudden, Thurn, 54, veered left and knocked the man into the wall. Thurn looked at him and said, “I don't have any balance, I think I'm going to fall over.”

About the same time, Thurn's fishing buddy, Sam Wilkinson, went to a customer's office and felt like he was going to pass out. Once he got home, Wilkinson headed to the bathroom, but “my legs wouldn't hardly work.”

Wilkinson, then 43, stumbled and fell into the dresser and tables, at which point his wife insisted on taking him to the emergency room.

Eventually, the fishing buddies both were diagnosed with West Nile virus.

They often fish together in a two-man bass boat on lakes in an Edmond housing addition where Thurn lives. While neither is exactly sure when they contracted the virus, they think it was likely in August 2012 based on when they became ill.

Last year, 178 cases of West Nile were reported in Oklahoma, including 30 deaths, according to the state Health Department.

Christie McDonald-Hamm, epidemiologist with the state Health Department, said there is no way to know if the virus will be an issue in 2013, and if so when it will peak or if it will be as bad as last year.

However, she suggested that instead of fearing the possibility, just prepare by protecting yourself.

Public health officials recommend residents wear mosquito repellent with an active ingredient such as 10 percent to 30 percent DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus on their exposed skin and clothing when outdoors, especially during the evening and early morning hours, McDonald-Hamm said.

“We don't want you to stop your activities or anything like that,” she added. “We do want to promote protecting yourself while continuing your outdoor activities.”

West Nile virus

West Nile virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. And more than 80 percent of people who are exposed to West Nile virus never become sick, McDonald-Hamm said.

Of those who do, most will have a mild illness with symptoms such as headache, fever and tiredness. Some people also may develop a rash. In some cases, West Nile virus can cause severe neurological disease such as meningitis, paralysis or encephalitis.

Symptoms of West Nile meningitis or encephalitis may be intense headaches, dizziness, stiff neck, severe weakness, muscle tremors, confusion or seizures.

There is no treatment for West Nile virus, McDonald-Hamm said. Those experiencing severe illness often are hospitalized and given increased supportive care.

Feeling the effects

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by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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