West Nile Virus toll can be extreme for some Atlanta residents

Getting a single mosquito bite in metro Atlanta changed Jule Hamrick’s life in a way she couldn’t fathom.

Her unwanted epiphany came around this time last year. A Labor Day weekend run-in with a mosquito carrying West Nile Virus paralyzed her from the waist up within days. To communicate, she was reduced to blinking.

Her recovery has been brutally slow. Only recently was the Roswell resident strong enough to be disconnected from a ventilator. She now walks a little, but remains confined to a wheelchair most of her waking hours. She needs help 24 hours a day.

Her case isn’t at all common, even for people who get the virus. Still, she isn’t alone.

West Nile is the leading mosquito-borne disease in the continental U.S. And it’s present again this year in metro Atlanta mosquitoes, though it’s looking less prevalent than a year ago. Typically it peaks from July through September.

Last week, Fulton County announced its first confirmed case of 2019, with the hospitalization of a woman living in the city of Atlanta. There’s been just one other confirmed case in Georgia so far this year.

There were 36 in 2018, with two deaths. There haven’t been any West Nile deaths reported in Georgia yet this year.

Many more people have likely been infected with the virus this summer without being aware of it, experts say. Most people who get West Nile will be unaffected. Another one in five will endure a fever or other flu-like symptoms, though most may never get a diagnosis.

For some Georgians, though, perhaps one out of every 150 who are infected, the penalty for failing to apply bug repellent is more chilling.

“I was a totally healthy person with a full-time job,” Hamrick said. She’s not any more.

“People just need to know,” said the 57-year-old, who used to delight in gardening. “Don’t freak them out,” she told a reporter, just make sure they know the cost.

She doesn’t know where she was exactly in Cobb or Fulton when a mosquito needled her ankle. She didn’t feel the itch right away. Days later came the headaches and nausea. Sinus infection? she thought at first. Migraine? Then her fever spiked and so did her blood pressure.

She landed at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital for two weeks — most of it with staff just trying to stabilize her and figure out what was wrong. That was followed by nearly three months of care and rehab at the Shepherd Center.

The first West Nile Virus cases in the U.S. were detected in New York City in 1999, and within three years the Old World disease had reached the West Coast and many states. In 2001, Georgia had its first known case in a person, an Atlanta woman who died. But the highest average incidence of cases has generally been in other states, particularly places such as Nebraska and North and South Dakota.

Doctors often take awhile to determine West Nile as a cause for patients who face severe symptoms.

There is no treatment for the virus. Some people, like Hamrick, face an attack on their spine. Others can face cognitive and other brain issues or cardiac problems. In rare cases, particularly for elderly or others who already had serious health problems, it can also kill, and does every year in the United States. But researchers still are unsure why it can affect people so differently.

The boards of health in DeKalb and Fulton regularly trap mosquitoes and test for the virus. So far this summer, infected mosquitoes have been trapped in 14 locations in virtually every quadrant of DeKalb (down from 29 in 2018) and in two locations in Fulton (down from five). In coastal Chatham County, where Savannah is located, health officials have logged more collections of infected mosquitoes than in any year since 2011.

Before Hamrick got sick she knew the West Nile Virus had been found in Georgia bloodsuckers. But she figured she didn’t have much of a chance of getting it. And if she did, she thought, it’s just a virus, you get over, right?

“I don’t think anybody we’ve ever talked to knew it would affect people like this,” she said.

On a recent weekday, nearly 12 months after her ordeal began, Hamrick’s breath came in sharp gasps. She struggled to roll a foam apple six inches, from hand to hand, across a desk.

“Push through it,” her occupational therapist urged.

Rebuilding the ability to move is an exhausting undertaking.

“Life is a struggle from one stupid mosquito,” Hamrick said. “Wear bug spray.”

And empty outside containers holding stagnant water where mosquito larvae thrive.

The same holiday weekend when Hamrick was bitten, David Carmon was miles away trimming bushes in his backyard near downtown Gainesville. The next day he got a rash on his back. A doctor thought it might be a simple allergic reaction. But Carmon’s health went downhill quickly. As his wife, Jessie, recruited a friend to help her load him into a car for a ride to the emergency room, “my head went limp and my feet went out from under me.”

He had hallucinations in the coming days as doctors struggled to find a cause. Carmon remembers coming to, with his wife beside him.

“I looked at her and realized I couldn’t move anything,” the 54-year-old logistics broker recalled. “I freaked out. I was trapped in my body. My mind was clear, but I couldn’t do anything. I was completely paralyzed.”

He spent a month at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, then four more at the Shepherd Center. He’s home now, but he can’t walk without assistance. He can’t use his arms, though he can move his right hand to drive a wheelchair.

Carmon said he is confident that with time he will make a full recovery or nearly so. He’s also now a big proponent of mosquito repellent.

“Every morning I open my eyes is a blessed day,” he said. “I dream of a day when I will be able to work in my backyard again.”

For some patients, some symptoms could last a lifetime, according to doctors at the Shepherd Center.

“People are still unaware of what all havoc mosquitoes can wreak,” said Ford Vox, a brain injury specialist there.

Meanwhile, research is underway in Georgia and elsewhere to study West Nile and eventually determine which, if any, drugs treatments might help. Many are in the process of being developed and tested.

"It is hard to know when those will get to market," said Margo Brintona Georgia State University professor who has been studying the virus since the 1960s.

About West Nile Virus: The U.S. had its first confirmed case of West Nile Virus in New York City in 1999. Since then, the virus has spread across most of the country, with nearly 51,000 cases and more than 2,300 deaths reported. Georgia recorded more than 100 cases between 2014 and 2018, but experts say many instances go unreported. Most people infected with West Nile Virus don’t feel sick. Others can suffer flu-like symptoms. In rare cases, the virus can cause cognitive issues, paralysis and even death.

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