Deaths from West Nile in Texas, although rare, climb this week

FILE - In this Friday, May 11, 2007 photo, a mosquito is sorted according to species and gender before testing for West Nile Virus at the Dallas County mosquito lab in Dallas. Scientists have been working on mathematical models to predict outbreaks for decades and have long factored in the weather. They have known, for example, that temperature and rainfall affect the breeding of mosquitoes that carry malaria, West Nile virus and other dangerous diseases. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
FILE - In this Friday, May 11, 2007 photo, a mosquito is sorted according to species and gender before testing for West Nile Virus at the Dallas County mosquito lab in Dallas. Scientists have been working on mathematical models to predict outbreaks for decades and have long factored in the weather. They have known, for example, that temperature and rainfall affect the breeding of mosquitoes that carry malaria, West Nile virus and other dangerous diseases. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — First a headache, then confusion, followed by seizures and an illness that can put you in a coma. These are among the severe, but rare reactions from West Nile Virus.

How rare? Around 1 in 250 people who get West Nile will get a severe symptom. About 75 percent of those who get the virus won’t even know they have it, showing absolutely no symptoms. Most of those in the remaining 25 percent will get a mild illness: a low grade fever, a rash and joint pain. A small percent will go on to get a neuroinvasive disease, meaning it attacks parts of the brain.

In the past week, the death toll from West Nile in Texas has climbed from four to seven, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. This time last year, eight people had died from West Nile in the state, for comparison. The department does not publicly release where the deaths occurred. The CDC says nearly 44,000 cases of the virus have been reported in the United States since 1999.

Dr. Coburn Allen, Dell Children’s Medical Center pediatric infectious disease specialist, couldn’t say conclusively if West Nile Virus caused the death of 13-year-old Cody Hopkins on Oct. 9, but he expects the answer to that question will come soon. What they do know is that two tests showed Hopkins had West Nile in his body and evidence his immune system was reacting to the virus. “I have a 13 year old son, this has been very hard for me personally, to be involved in this, to see such an extreme outcome with an extremely rare disease.

“The numbers in children are even smaller than in adults,” Allen said. “In my 20+ years in pediatrics, I’ve never seen a severe case of neuroinvasive disease in a child.”

He says most of the disease that occurs in children is meningitis, inflammation around the layer of the brain called the meninges. Adults are more likely to get encephalitis, where the brain is attacked.

In the adult cases, most of the patients have severe, underlying medical problems, like cancer or diabetes. “It’s quite shocking to have a healthy child that has a severe case of the disease.”

Allen, addressing anxiety toward using products with DEET — the most common ingredient in many insect repellents — says there have been very few cases of toxicity from DEET in the past 60 years. In those cases, it was due to a child drinking it, not applying it to their skin. Allen says DEET is still considered the most safe and effective preventative measure against mosquitoes by the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics — with one caveat.

“We don’t really know how safe DEET is under 2 months of age.” Using netting around an infant carrier and non-DEET insect repellents are the recommended options for newborns.

The gold standard, especially if you’re going to be in places rife with mosquitoes, is the combination of DEET insect repellents and a spray you can put on your clothing called permethrin.

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