AUSTIN, TX (KXAN) — While West Nile Virus has been a health concern for years, there’s still a lot unknown about the disease. There’s still no treatment, no vaccine and little research on the long-term effects of the disease.
Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine have been studying the virus for years, and have uncovered a frightening trend. They followed patients in the months and years after they contracted the disease and found it can continue causing dangerous health problems, like kidney disease.
“For several years, we had followed smaller groups of patients and felt that many had died prematurely,” said Kristy O. Murray, DVM, PhD, of Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. “We saw many people who were otherwise healthy until they had West Nile virus — and then their health just went downhill.”
Murray, the principal author of the study, says the delayed deaths appear to be more common in patients who had suffered significant neurological complications during the acute phase of their illness.
Researchers looked at 4,144 West Nile virus (WNV) infections in Texas between 2002 and 2012 and found 286 people died in the early phase of the virus. Another 268 people survived the infection, but subsequently died due to the virus. In total, they attribute 13 percent of deaths to WNV, much higher than the 4 percent national fatality rate for WNV recorded between 1999 and 2015 by the CDC.
In 2012, a West Nile outbreak infected 153 people in Travis County. Walter Mizell was one of them, and he already suffers long-term consequences.
“My case was very, very painful,” said Mizell. “And it doesn’t go away, the pain meds weren’t effective for me, and it was just a matter of waiting until it took its course.”
There’s no treatment for the disease and patients like Mizell are left with a lot of questions. “The doctors were sympathetic, but had so little experience with the disease, they couldn’t tell me if I’d recover, what degree, or how long it would take.”
Today, Mizell’s right leg is no longer strong enough to run, and the virus took his endurance. He is able to ride a bicycle and gets his exercise that way.
Mizell hopes to start a support group in Austin for West Nile survivors. He was part of one in Dallas and says it made a big difference in his life.
“I never realized how meaningful it can be to talk to someone who had gone through the same kind of experience, had lived through it and adjusted to it,” said Mizell.
He hasn’t been able to get a list of people who’ve gotten the disease in Travis County, due to healthcare privacy laws, but urges any survivors to reach out to him. “I think it would be helpful, a real community service to set up a gathering point for people who have had disease and want to talk to others who’ve gone through it.”
With so many unknowns about the disease, support may be the comfort many survivors need.