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West Nile know-how

09/30/2011 @ 11:48am

It was a routine day for Larry Morrison. The Lingle, Wyoming, rancher was mowing in a hayfield near the North Platte River. Little did he know on that day in 2003 his life was about to change.

That night, he became seriously ill with chills, fever, rashes, and severe fatigue. “I toughed it out for a while, thinking I had the flu,” he says

Morrison finally gave in and saw his family doctor. A series of blood tests confirmed that he'd been bitten by a mosquito carrying West Nile virus.

He doesn't remember the bite. “It didn't bother me at the time,” he says. “But the effects still bother me today.”

Now 68, Morrison helps his son, Wayne, manage their 7X Ranches with 150 prizewinning registered cows.

Memory lapses

In the course of his struggle, Morrison has seen doctors as far away as Houston, Texas, and has become something of an expert on West Nile disease.

“It hits everyone differently,” he says. “For most, it's very mild or no symptoms. But for me, it hits hard in many ways. The biggest impact is neurological. It's affected my sense of balance and memory.

“If I'm studying up on a particular bull we might be considering for the herd, I have to write it all down or else I'll have to do it all over again,” he says.

Morrison always carries a cell phone and has a GPS unit in his pickup, especially when he visits a ranch they rent 12 miles from the homeplace. “I've been there many times, but sometimes I can't remember how to get home,” he says.

Farmers at risk

West Nile virus was first identified in Africa 70 years ago and first reported in North America about 10 years ago. Since then, it has spread over the entire continent and is now most prevalent in Midwest and Western states. Experts suspect it's transmitted when a mosquito bites an infected bird, then bites a person. (Horses are susceptible, too.)

Farmers are particularly vulnerable because they work outside during prime mosquito season, says Robert Orenstein, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “The risk is somewhat higher because they're in areas where mosquitoes breed and birds nest,” he says.

“The best approach is to cover exposed skin to avoid bites. If you have to be outside during high-risk times, use an insect repellent with 20% to 30% Deet. This will help protect you for four to six hours. You also can treat outside clothing with permethrin liquid insecticide to reduce insect bites. Try to eliminate areas on the farm or ranch with standing water.”

Orenstein says there's no approved treatment for West Nile infection and there's no human vaccine (there is one for horses). Several investigative treatments are available using antibodies produced from previously infected persons.

Keeping on

When Morrison visits his daughter in Houston, he schedules appointments with West Nile disease experts. “It helps, but it costs $330 a month for my medicines, and insurance doesn't cover it,” he says.

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