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Published August 06, 2013, 09:20 AM

Lidgerwood, N.D., woman recovering after suffering debilitating symptoms of West Nile virus

Connie Whittier gave little thought to the dead blackbirds that began littering her backyard and neighborhood. But she was given a painful reminder that dead birds can be a warning sign of the presence of West Nile virus, which can cause serious and even life-threatening infections in people.

By: Patrick Springer, Forum News Service

LIDGERWOOD, N.D. -- Connie Whittier gave little thought to the dead blackbirds that began littering her backyard and neighborhood.

But she was given a painful reminder that dead birds can be a warning sign of the presence of West Nile virus, which can cause serious and even life-threatening infections in people.

She’s telling her story in the hope of sparing others the misery and debilitating symptoms she experienced.

“I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said Monday.

On July 28, the 52-year-old came down with what first seemed like flu symptoms: slight fever and a headache. She spent much of the day resting on the couch.

The following day her husband, Rick, called the hospital. He was advised to give her a pain reliever and lots of fluid, and to call back the next day if symptoms didn’t improve.

Connie’s condition deteriorated markedly overnight – her headache became excruciating, she became nauseous and confused.

Rick drove her to the emergency room at the nearest hospital, in Breckenridge, Minn., where she was given a battery of tests, including a spinal tap. Doctors wanted to rule out a possible stroke.

Her condition deteriorated, and she was transported by ground ambulance to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, where doctors put her on intravenous antibiotics and ran more tests.

Doctors suspected West Nile virus, a diagnosis confirmed by a lab at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Once confirmed, they withdrew antibiotics because they are of no use in combating the viral infection.

The most effective therapy: ice packs surrounding Connie’s body to reduce her 103-degree temperature. Her confusion was caused by a brain infection.

“She screamed and cried for 23 hours,” Rick said, explaining painkillers couldn’t be administered until the West Nile diagnosis was confirmed because they could exacerbate problems if it turned out she was having a stroke.

Four days after she first became ill, Connie had recovered enough to eat her first food. The doctor was pleased with her progress.

“He said, ‘You’re doing amazing,’ ” Connie said Monday.

Still, Rick said, it will take weeks for her to recover. She has experienced tremors, is tired, and is working to regain her energy and motor skills, including her ability to write.

“We were really scared for her,” he said. “It was terrible, the confusion and pain.”

Birds are reservoirs for the West Nile virus. Mosquitoes acquire the virus when they bite an infected bird, and transmit the infection to people or other animals when they bite, said Michelle Feist, the West Nile virus program director for the North Dakota Department of Health.

That’s why people who see dead birds are asked to report them to state health officials.

“It can be a warning sign,” Feist said. “It serves as a good reminder that there’s transmission occurring. That can be an early reminder.”

Certain species, including crows, ravens, blue jays, owls and hawks, are especially susceptible, she said.

West Nile, which has turned up this summer in mosquito populations in Grant County and Grand Forks County, usually becomes more common in late summer, she said.

“We’re kind of in that peak right now,” Feist said. “That risk doesn’t go away until the mosquitos are gone,” usually with the first hard frost.

Once people are infected with West Nile virus, the symptoms can take three to 14 days to become evident, Feist said.

A relatively small percentage of people will develop the neurological symptoms that Connie Whittier suffered. A few will die.

Last year, North Dakota recorded one death from West Nile, and 14 deaths have occurred since tracking began in 2002, when the disease first surfaced, Feist said. So far no deaths have been reported this year, she said.

Looking back, Connie believes she contracted the infection when she was gardening or relaxing on the patio in her backyard. Although she used insect repellent, she was bitten around her ankles.

“I had totally forgotten that birds are associated with West Nile,” she said. “I didn’t think too much of it.”

To avoid West Nile Virus

Health experts recommend precautions to avoid the West Nile virus, spread by mosquitoes:

• Weather permitting, wear long sleeves and pants. Loose clothing is better.

• Use insect repellent containing DEET on exposed skin and over clothing.

• Try to avoid peak mosquito times, from dawn to dusk. Woody and brushy areas during the day also can harbor mosquitoes.

• Eliminate standing water, including clogged rain gutters. Empty bird baths after five days.

To report dead birds to North Dakota health officials, go online to http://www.ndhealth.gov/WNV/Testing/.

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