Originally created 12/05/01

Tests confirm West Nile virus



Ray Davis is a rare man. The high fever and confusion he was suffering after Labor Day turned out to be encephalitis caused by the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. He is one of four men who, tests recently confirmed, had the virus, which entered the state just this year and earlier killed an Atlanta woman.

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Mr. Davis, 73, has had to relearn a lot of things as a result of the encephalitis - a sometimes fatal swelling of the brain because of infection - and he is in rehab at Doctors Hospital.

The tests confirmed the susspicions of University Hospital infectious diseases specialist Jack H. Austin Jr.

"Because I knew that the West Nile virus was moving into this part of the country, I immediately became concerned that we could be seeing West Nile virus in Augusta, so I had him tested for it."

But it took a couple of months to get the confirmation back from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, because cases of viral encephalitis have few treatments, it would not have changed the care for Mr. Davis, who spent weeks in intensive care and was on a ventilator at one point.

Mr. Davis, a former maintenance manager for Gracewood State School and Hospitals, said he does not remember getting bitten and always uses bug spray when he's outside.

"It's just strange they would attack me," said Mr. Davis, who is Richmond County's first case.

Tests also confirmed the virus in a 61-year-old man in Macon County hospitalized in September and a 70-year-old man from Wayne County hospitalized in mid-October. A 68-year-old man from Pierce County is still hospitalized with encephalitis. All are recovering, and Mr. Davis is "probably going to have a complete recovery," Dr. Austin said.

The virus, which killed seven people in New York City in 1999 and two more last year, was front-page news when it showed up in Georgia this summer and killed a 71-year-old Atlanta woman in August. Officials blamed the delay in getting the test results on the deluge of testing from anthrax investigations.

The confirmation means West Nile is here from now on, Dr. Austin said.

"From now on we will always have to include West Nile virus as part of our differential diagnosis in encephalitis that occurs in the warmer months in Augusta," Dr. Austin said. And it is already part of the battery of tests doctors order locally.

But the case should not be cause for panic, Dr. Austin said. Only about one in 140 people bitten by an infected mosquito will develop symptoms, and those are usually mild and flulike, according to the CDC. Between three and 15 percent of the serious cases are fatal; of the 48 human cases reported so far this year, five have died, the CDC said.

After being confined to the Northeast last year, the virus spread by infected birds to Florida and Georgia and has now been found in 27 states and as far west as Missouri and Iowa, the CDC said.

Health officials had assumed all along that the virus was spread throughout Georgia even in those counties that had not had a confirmed case, said state epidemiologist Susan Lance-Parker.

"We didn't have any reason to believe the mosquitoes missed those counties," she said.

But because the virus does not replicate or reproduce well in mosquitoes when the temperature is below 55 degrees, the risk for further infection is likely reduced for most areas except in south Georgia, Dr. Lance-Parker said.

There are still a few samples out where the state is waiting for confirmation so there might be some additional human cases, she added.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.