West Nile virus made big headlines in Texas in 2012. But the truth is, it probably infects thousands of people here each year, even though the actual number of confirmed cases tends to be quite low. That’s because an estimated 80 percent of those infected don’t have any symptoms and never see a doctor. Others will become sick with flu-like symptoms and recover. But for a small number of people each year, West Nile causes permanent disability, paralysis and death.
In 2012, 68-year-old Chuck Yarling was an avid runner, biker and swimmer who’d competed in more than 100 triathlons. In fact, he’d competed in one just weeks before he fainted in his apartment on an August afternoon. He awoke days later in a rehabilitation hospital a different man.
“They explained what was going on; I could not move my legs, was in a wheel chair, could move my arms. I found out later that my right ear was dead and I lost hearing in my left ear. Being a musician all my life, that was kind of a shock,” Yarling says.
In the years since, Yarling has worked hard to regain mobility and strength. He is back to biking and swimming and recently completed an event called an “Aquabike” with some support. But he still has trouble balancing, and his goal to run again has remained elusive.
“If I don’t run by the end of this year, I probably won’t be able to – six-and-a-half-years,” Yarling says.
Walter Mizell was also an avid runner before his encounter with an infected mosquito in 2012. He found out he was sick when his right leg gave out on him while traveling. Like Yarling, he had the neuroinvasive variety of West Nile; it affects the nervous system and brain. Once diagnosed, doctors told Mizell there was nothing that could be done.
“From there on, it was just a matter of managing the pain and dealing with the loss of strength in my right side. I lost the nerves that propel the muscles in my right leg and I had to relearn how to walk,” Mizell says.
It’s meant that he, too, has had to give up running, though he does bike and walk. His work life also suffered: Mizell was a full-time attorney when he contracted the disease but had to shut down his practice because his ability to manage stress was impaired by the virus. He says finding a support group of survivors helped him greatly in coping with the effects of the disease.
“What I learned from the support group in Dallas was that it wasn’t just me, that it was something that was a natural progression from that disease that made it difficult to manage stressful situations. And stressful situations are quite common in the practice of law,” Mizell says.
Both men say they felt lucky to be alive, knowing that others who were infected that same summer died. West Nile has killed 167 people in Texas in the past decade, including central Texas teen Cody Hopkins. His grandmother Rosalee Kibby told the state’s Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response that his death disproves a big misconception about West Nile.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well it’s just an age-related disease.’ That’s not true: Cody was 13 years old. He was healthy, he played football, he rode bulls, he was a very active, healthy, happy young man,” Kibby says.
So far, 2018 has been fairly mild for West Nile in Texas, with 98 human cases reported as of mid-October, and two fatalities. But, once again, those numbers are far below the actual totals of people infected – we’ll look into a few reasons why that is, tomorrow.
Support for Texas Standard’s ”Spotlight on Health” project is provided by St. David’s Foundation.