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Carpinterian is county's first West Nile case

Santa Barbara News-Press 30 August 2005

Scott Hadly


It started with a slight fever, fatigue and an upset stomach, but if the 24-year-old Carpinteria man hadn't gone in to give blood, nobody may ever have known: He is the first person in the county with a confirmed case of West Nile virus.

"Eighty percent of the people who contract it have no symptoms at all and won't even know that they're infected," said Dr. Elliot Schulman, health officer and the director of the county's Public Health Department.

In this case, the man went in to donate blood and West Nile was detected as part of the regular screening process. Ironically, when he first went in, he agreed to participate in a new blood test meant to detect the virus, said Dr. Schulman.

The man, whose name was withheld by the county officials, had a mild case, but his illness is a harbinger of sorts, said Dr. Schulman.

"I can say that this was fully expected," he said.

For several years now, the county has been monitoring for the blood-borne disease transmitted by mosquitoes. The Carpinteria man told public health officials that he'd had multiple mosquito bites at different times just before contracting the virus. Although nothing could be confirmed, it's believed the man contracted West Nile after being bitten while walking in a wooded area in western Goleta, Dr. Schulman said.

West Nile has already killed dozens of birds and two horses in the county, and its infection of people here was thought to be inevitable.

In 2004, a local man who'd been traveling out of state contracted the disease. There have also been cases in each of the counties surrounding Santa Barbara. Statewide, there have been 370 people infected and eight deaths.

But the risk of serious illness is low, Dr. Schulman said. The majority of people either never know they contracted the virus or have mild flulike symptoms and never seek medical attention.

In the more serious cases -- about one in every 150 -- a person might develop encephalitis or meningitis.

The best way to protect yourself against the virus is to try not to be bitten by mosquitoes. The best way to do that is to use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and long pants when outdoors, and avoid going outside when the bugs are most active -- at dawn and the first two hours after sunset.

The elderly and those with lower immune systems are most vulnerable to infection. Although there is now a vaccine available for horses, there is no specific treatment for the illness in humans.

For more information, go to the Santa Barbara County's Public Health Department Web site at www.sbcphd.org or call the communicable disease line at 681-5280.