Vince Bock is fighting for his life against the West Nile virus. The retired carpenter drifts in and out of consciousness on the third floor of Mesa’s Banner Desert Medical Center, attached to tubes and monitors that can only keep him comfortable.
Wife Linda waits helplessly, praying he’ll survive the brainwasting encephalitis that has gripped him for nearly two weeks, and growing angrier by the minute about the damage a tiny mosquito can inflict.
“I need to do something for him. I need to let people know,” she said Wednesday. “If I can help one person from getting sick, it’s well worth it. And Vince would back me up 100 percent.”
But as the weather cools and the number of so-called “nuisance” mosquitoes abates, public health experts fear the worst.
“We are probably at our highest risk right now, and will be for the next few weeks,” said Craig Levy, manager of the vector-borne and zoonotic diseases section of the state Department of Health Services.
“The late-season spike in activity has been very dramatic,” Levy said. “This is absolutely not the time to stop the prevention.”
West Nile has killed three people in Arizona so far this year, one in Maricopa County and one each in Pinal and Pima counties, and sickened nearly 50. All of those who died were elderly. People over 50 are at greater risk of becoming ill with the mosquito-borne disease.
New statistics to be released today by the state will show that those numbers have grown, Levy said.
Last year, there were 106 human cases, and four deaths, compared with 391 cases and 16 deaths, in 2004.
Most people who contract West Nile will have little or no symptoms, but a handful, like Vince Bock, will get critically ill. About one-third of those who get sick will fully recover; another third will suffer permanent physical or mental disabilities.
It’s too soon to say how Bock will do, said Dr. Steven Oscherwitz, chief of epidemiology and head of infection control for Banner Desert.
“He has stabilized. He’s a lot better off than when he came in,” Oscherwitz said. “He may improve with time. No one knows.”
Oscherwitz said Bock’s illness followed a familiar pattern, beginning with an upset stomach and progressing to severe muscle pain and fever. His temperature spiked at nearly 106, and meningitis — the swelling of the layers surrounding around the brain — gave way to brain inflammation, or encephalitis.
Vince first visited the emergency department at Gilbert Mercy Medical Center on Sept. 23, complaining of stomach pain, but walked out hours later, Linda said.
The next day he rested, but that night he started burning up with fever. Around 3 a.m. Sept. 25, he collapsed on his way to the bathroom, and Linda called 911.
It took a week, and an array of tests, before the state laboratory confirmed the diagnosis Monday — Bock’s spinal fluid contained West Nile antibodies.
Bock is an early riser, and liked to take his coffee on the patio that he built and watch the sunrise.
A healthy go-getter who turned 76 in the intensive care unit last week, he stayed busy with remodeling projects around the house and was helping a neighbor screen his porch. He’s recently taken up painting, and created a blooming ocotillo — Linda’s favorite — on the side of the shed.
“Last year, this man remodeled my kitchen, and built the cabinets himself,” Linda said. “He took his vitamins every morning. He ate good. He worked good. He slept good.”
But he didn’t protect himself against mosquitoes. Linda said she and her neighbors called Maricopa County about standing water in a nearby retention basin, but she doesn’t believe their neighborhood was ever fogged.
County vector control spokesman Johnny Dilone said the office has been fielding nearly 1,000 calls a week and investigates each one.
Once an area has been searched for standing water or other breeding sources, a mosquito trap is set. If the trap brings in at least 300 mosquitoes overnight — or 20 or more of the West Nile variety — the neighborhood will be fogged.
In the case of a human West Nile case, the county typically sets a trap in the area where the person may have been bitten, whether it’s a home, business or golf course.
Linda Bock says her husband no longer knows who she is and struggles to speak. Mostly he sleeps. There’s a hollow look in his eyes and she fears that this stubborn, tender-hearted German is giving up.
“I can’t do anything for him,” she says through tears. “I need him back the way he was.”
Mosquito checklist IN YOUR YARD:
• Don’t allow water to stand for more than two days.
• Check for standing water in birdbaths, pet dishes, buckets, cans, outside toys, wheelbarrows, old tires, boats and flowerpots.
• Remove any water that collects on pool covers.
• Clear leaves and twigs from eaves, troughs and gutters.
• Fill in low areas in lawns.
• Repair leaky pipes and outside faucets, as well as damaged window and door screens.
• Let neighbors know about potential mosquito breeding grounds on their property, or report stagnant water to the county.
TO REDUCE THE CHANCES OF BEING BITTEN:
• Stay indoors from dusk to dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.
• Wear loose-fitting clothing, long sleeves and long pants.
• Apply insect repellent containing DEET to clothing as well as exposed skin.
• Do not use insect repellent on children under 2.