It’s been almost 10 months since John Braaten was diagnosed with West Nile virus, but he still cries in pain from his symptoms. Braaten, 35, of Apache Junction developed meningitis from the virus, swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
The condition causes severe pain in his neck and spine. No matter how much medicine he takes or praying he does, Braaten said he can’t get rid of the pain.
"It’s still haunting me," he said. "It’s amazing how one mosquito bite can turn your life upside down."
Braaten’s drawn-out battle with West Nile reflects a finding by public health officials in Maricopa County and other parts of the country such as New York and Colorado: Long recovery times are common among people struck hard by the mosquito-borne disease.
As county health officials prepare for another season of human infections, they continue to work with people still suffering the effects of last year’s epidemic, which lasted from about April to November.
A follow-up study has found that of 241 confirmed West Nile cases that resulted in neuroinvasive disease — including meningitis, flaccid paralysis and encephalitis, swelling of the brain — fewer than half had fully recovered since they were infected with the virus last season. About 35 percent reported recovery at halfway to 100 percent, and 24 percent of people said they were less than half recovered, or not at all. The total cases include 23 people who were not found during follow-up.
"We need people to realize this is not an innocuous disease," said Dr. Robert Jones, director of biodefense preparedness and response for the county’s Department of Public Health. "This disease can change your life."
County officials are following up with people three and six months after they developed a neuroinvasive disease from West Nile, asking them to rate their recovery on a scale for certain symptoms. Of those surveyed after six months, most people complained of continued fatigue. About one in five reported weakness or headaches, 13 percent complained of cognitive difficulties and 11 percent said they had problems with equilibrium.
The group includes people who are still paralyzed in parts of their body, have difficulty walking without crutches or a wheelchair, or rely on supportive care at home or in a nursing facility, Jones said.
"These are individuals who had a major insult to their central nervous system," he said. "The fact this disease produces encephalitis and meningitis makes it something you don’t want to get."
Banner Health is planning a support group for West Nile survivors, an idea prompted by people enduring long recovery times, said Caryn Yarbrough, an emergency management specialist for Banner Health. The company’s hospitals treated 80 percent of people hospitalized for West Nile last year, she said.
Most people infected with West Nile develop no symptoms, or mild, flulike ones. Debilitating and lengthy side effects usually occur in those who develop a central nervous system disorder, doctors said. But there are people without encephalitis, meningitis or flaccid paralysis who continue to struggle many months after their infection, they said.
One of them is Frances Hansen. The 88-year- old Chandler woman said she was bitten by mosquitoes last May and diagnosed with West Nile over the summer, but still has pain in her fingers, memory loss and trouble doing many daily activities she used to do before.
"I have a lot of pain that could be attributed to a lot of things, but I was holding my own until I got bit by mosquitoes," she said. "Since then, I’ve been going downhill. I can’t even buy my own groceries."
The infection sent her blood pressure sky high, caused pain in her eyes and teeth, led to two bouts with pneumonia, and left the right side of her body temporarily paralyzed, she said.
"I don’t know where it didn’t go," Hansen said of West Nile. "I’m lucky I’m still alive."