When Ascension Parish resident Harold Waggenspack started feeling flu like symptoms in late July, his family said they never suspected West Nile disease to be the cause. However, as his symptoms got worse he was hospitalized and diagnosed with a neuroinvasive West Nile infection. His family says the 90-year-old died from the disease nearly a week later on August 1. Over the phone, his family told 9News that everyone should take this disease seriously, something echoed by local physicians.
“It only takes one bite of an infected mosquito to be infected so it's a difficult problem,” said Lake After Hours Medical Director Dr. Graham Tujague.
Tujague did not treat Waggenspack, but he says patients often come into his clinic complaining of flu-like symptoms. He says because symptoms of a serious West Nile infection- fever, aches and fatigue- are common in many diseases it can be difficult to diagnose.
"It attacks the red blood cells. It can be invasive like into the neurovascular system, and to the brain and spinal cord and that's really where you start having some issues," said Tujague.
Doctors explain that most people infected will show no or few symptoms of the virus, and most healthy patients can fight off the infection on their own. However, a small percent will develop the most severe form of the disease, neuroinvasive West Nile, which attacks the brain and spinal cord and can be deadly. Those with a weak immune system, the very young or the very old are at higher risk for complications.
“Comorbid issues such as diabetes, kidney disease, respiratory disease, COPD --all these things can influence how well your body responds to the illness," said Tujague.
That is why it's important to get checked out by a doctor if you have any flu like symptoms, a high fever or if symptoms don't improve after a few days.
While there is no cure for West Nile, there are easy ways of protecting yourself. Keep skin covered as much as possible while outside. Always use bug repellant and avoid being outside during peak mosquito activity at dusk and dawn.
Currently, state health officials report 29 human cases of West Nile in Louisiana.