First human West Nile case reported in Utah: health officials encourage self-protection

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The first human case of West Nile virus in Utah this year was identified in Washington County on Wednesday, and health officials are urging vigilance in protection.

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department continues to report positive test results for West Nile virus in Washington County mosquitoes at www.swuhealth.org. Shauna Zundel, a registered nurse at Dixie’s Health and Wellness Center, said while no on-campus cases have been reported or are of intense concern this year, it’s still important for students to be aware of the virus and to take necessary precautions.

“I haven’t seen very many mosquitoes in the St. George area this summer, but if you go up to Pine Valley or Cedar Mountain, usually in the areas around here where people might go camping, there could be some infected mosquitoes,” she said.

Typically those with weak or compromised immune systems are more likely to face infection, along with the young or elderly, Zundel said. 

Marlee Mecham, a junior physical therapy major from Tremonton, said she’s seen first-hand the seriousness of West Nile virus. Her cousin was bedridden for weeks after being infected a few years ago. 

“She was just super weak, really drained and she ended up in the hospital because it got so bad,” she said. “I hate mosquitoes even more now after seeing what it did to her.”

Potential West Nile virus symptoms include fever, fatigue, aches and pains, headaches, rash, stiff neck, disorientation or even paralysis. However, some people may not have any symptoms and not even know they’ve contracted the virus, Zundel said. 

“There’s a lot of different illnesses that can cause those exact same things, so we don’t want to scare everybody,” she said. “We don’t want students to think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a fever and I’ve got aches and pains, I must have West Nile virus.’ But if they don’t feel well, it would be smart to come up to the clinic and get checked out.”

Zundel said this year’s mosquito count has not made any significant jump from previous years, so students should not be overly concerned about the risk of infection. She said she’s only ever known two patients at the Wellness Center who were infected with West Nile virus in 2007 or 2008.

“More than likely if students have those symptoms of a fever or headache, they’ve probably got a viral infection or a bacterial infection—not serious,” she said. “But if anyone has any problems with paralysis, or if they can’t touch their chin to their chest, they should come in; there could be something going on.” 

Zundel said if the Wellness Center providers detect concerns or suspicions of West Nile infection, the patient will be referred and admitted into a hospital. There is no vaccine for human West Nile virus, but quite a few precautions can be made to prevent infection.

Bug spray, with 30 percent DEET or picaridin, is most effective, she said. People can also wear long sleeve shirts or pants, especially when outdoors during dusk or dawn or in remote wilderness areas. Standing water in backyards can attract mosquitoes as well. Draining buckets, ponds or any other areas where water can collect and stand for long periods of time can prevent mosquito populations.

“You rarely ever see mosquitoes actually in St. George, but if you’re going out to maybe Zion or camping or whatever, yeah I’d be smart about it because you don’t want to screw around with stuff like that,” Mecham said.

Above all, Zundel stressed the importance of students to not be shy and bring their concerns to the Health and Wellness Center, whether about West Nile virus infection or any other ailment. Providers, including doctors, nurses and counselors, are available to students for $10 a visit. They are ready to care for wide varieties of illness, physical, mental or emotional, Zundel said. 

“I’ve seen some students who let things go for a long time thinking it will get better, but then it gets worse,” she said. “We don’t want students to do that; that’s why we say just go ahead and come over. 

“Ten dollars is not very much, and everybody here is really nice,” she said. “We’ve got several mothers here who want to take care of you.” 

While walk-in visits are welcome, students can make appointments at the Health and Wellness Center by calling 435-652-7756 or visiting www.dixie.edu/wellness.