West Nile virus in an unlikely place: Why my loss is a wake-up call for all Americans

Ann Hayden

This year will be like no other for me: I’ll be without my dad.

His recent death in Yolo County, California, intersected with my work to manage the impacts of climate change – in a very real and personal way.  While West Nile is usually associated with damp summer conditions in the East rather than the arid West, I know now that drought can also lead to more cases.

Rising global temperatures have allowed the West Nile virus to reach virtually every corner of America, including regions where nobody used to worry about the mosquito-borne disease.

The symptoms looked familiar, doctor said

This past Labor Day, my father came down with a very high fever that landed him in a hospital where, despite their best efforts, medical staff struggled to bring his fever down and to identify its cause.

What followed were five excruciating days of experimenting with different treatments, all while my dad’s condition worsened. On Sept. 8, he died with me and other family by his side.

In the middle of the ordeal, Yolo County’s only infectious disease doctor came into my dad’s hospital room and remarked that his conditions looked a lot like other West Nile cases he’d seen, which I found hard to believe. I mean, what were the odds?

Two days after my father died, we received the results from his spinal tap test, which indicated that the doctor’s hunch was right.

West Nile cases doubled during drought

Researchers at University of California Santa Cruz, Stanford University and the New York State Department of Health were surprised to find a correlation between drought and West Nile in a 2017 study. Their research supported a disconcerting trend during the recent drought in California, where the number of West Nile cases had doubled to exceed 500 in 2014 and 2015.

Last year, 2,544 people in the United States contracted West Nile virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a 21-percent increase from 2017. It’s no coincidence; 2018 ranked as the fourth hottest year on record, and the single hottest for the world’s oceans.

Among states, Nebraska topped the list with 241 cases and 11 deaths in 2018, followed by North Dakota and California.There were no fewer than 203 West Nile cases reported in California last year as drought continued in much of the state. Eight people died.

After my dad’s death, I learned that West Nile is more prevalent in the West than I had realized. I discovered, for instance, that the founder and longtime publisher of High Country News, Ed Marston, also died this past summer from complications of the virus.

No treatment available for people who get sick

Mosquitos contract West Nile virus when they feed on infected birds, and then spread it to the birds and people they bite next. Drought and the resulting shortage of water in a landscape can accelerate the cycle.

“When we have less water, birds and mosquitoes are seeking out the same water sources, and therefore are more likely to come in to closer proximity to one another, thus amplifying the virus,” Vicki Kramer, chief of vector-borne diseases at the California Department of Public Health, told NPR in 2014, when cases first spiked.

Although four out of five people infected with West Nile virus don’t develop any symptoms, people 60 years of age and older, and individuals with diabetes or hypertension, run a higher risk of getting sick and developing complications. There is no treatment for the virus today.

My dad’s death underscores how climate change won’t just hurt future generations, but is affecting us here and now.

My work took on a new meaning

Years ago, I was inspired to dedicate my career to the environment in part because of my dad. A retired UC Davis professor, dad was an avid nature lover, especially the nature surrounding the Yolo County house he built and where I grew up.

After he died, I initially questioned the meaning of many things, including my work. The pain of losing him overshadowed everything. But after much contemplation, I came to realize that my personal experience and grief should instead propel me to double down on my professional efforts.

It now feels more important than ever to seek solutions that result in more resilient water and land management, given that the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly real and are having such immediate consequences for human health.

I’m sure it’s what dad would have wanted.

See 11 comments