The state of California has blamed the spread of West Nile virus on the long-term drought. No medications currently exist to treat or prevent the virus, which can have deadly side effects.
According to Sophie Mattson of San Jose Mercury News, 31 people in California succumbed to West Nile infection last year, and more than 800 residents were infected. Although she was infected back in 2005, 69-year-old Laura Jaramillo recalled how she fell into a coma and spent six weeks fighting for her life in hospital due to the deadly virus; she woke up with paralysis on her right side.
"I had to learn how to eat, walk and talk all over again," Jaramillo said. "But I was just glad to be alive."
Mattson reported that no infections have occurred yet in California. However, the virus has been detected in birds in 31 California counties as the season begins for West Nile.
"There will be a lot of infections and people are going to be exposed to mosquitoes," Professor Fenyong Liu of UC Berkeley's School of Public Health said.
According to Mattson, 152 dead birds and 348 mosquito samples have tested positive for West Nile this year. Many of the dead birds tested positive in Santa Clara County.
"Santa Clara County Vector Control recently discovered the county's first mosquitoes infected with West Nile in parts of Palo Alto and Mountain View," Mattson wrote. "Pesticide fogging to kill the mosquito population there is scheduled for Monday night."
According to a press release issued by the California Department of Public Health, the spread of the virus is affected by many factors, including "climate, the number and types of birds and mosquitoes in an area, and the level of immunity in birds." The agency speculated that West Nile's transmission could be amplified thanks to limited water sources for both birds and mosquitoes.
"As birds and mosquitoes seek water, they are coming into closer contact and amplifying the transmission of the virus," the agency wrote.
CDPH director and state health officer Dr. Karen Smith noted that activity on the virus has increased measurably.
"While there have been no human cases of West Nile virus reported so far this year, it is only a matter of time before we see the first case," Smith said. "As people go outdoors to enjoy the warm weather we've been experiencing, we'd like them to be safe and know how to protect themselves against West Nile virus."
CDPH noted that while there was a low risk of serious illness for most people, about less than 1 percent of the population "can develop a serious neurologic illness such as encephalitis or meningitis." However, certain segments of the population could get seriously ill from West Nile virus.
"People 50 years of age and older have a higher chance of getting sick and are more likely to develop complications," CDPH wrote. "Studies also indicate that those with diabetes and/or hypertension are at greatest risk for serious illness."
Jaramillo hoped that her experience with the virus would encourage people to use DEET bug spray and cover their skin when going outside.
"It was an experience I don't want anyone to go through," Jaramillo said. "If it wasn't for my family and the strength I got from them, I don't think I would've made it."