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Published May 29, 2013, 07:36 PM

Family speaks out after North Dakota farmer dies of West Nile virus

JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Since West Nile virus claimed the life of farmer-rancher Kim Rath in February, his family has been spreading the word about the deadly mosquito-borne disease, which sickened 89 North Dakotans in 2012 alone.

By: Kari Lucin, Forum News Service, INFORUM

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Since West Nile virus claimed the life of farmer-rancher Kim Rath in February, his family has been spreading the word about the deadly mosquito-borne disease, which sickened 89 North Dakotans in 2012 alone.

“He came home and was scratching his arms, and said ‘I just got bit like crazy tonight,’ ” recalled Rath’s daughter, Kary Lindgren, of Ashley.

The simple mosquito bite, which seemed harmless at the time, led to flu-like symptoms on Aug. 9. Two days later, Rath, of Wishek in McIntosh County, went to the first of several hospitals for treatment.

The 58-year-old Rath had diabetes but otherwise was in good health, leading a very active lifestyle and spending plenty of time outdoors, Lindgren said.

Yet that one mosquito — and the West Nile virus that it transmitted — killed him.

He struggled for six months, suffering from encephalitis and polio-like symptoms caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. His family rallied around him while he was in intensive care, while a ventilator breathed for him and a feeding tube gave him enough sustenance to survive.

Eventually, he couldn’t walk or even hold his head up without help.

“We basically took turns to be with him,” Lindgren said. “All of us kids — we had someone with him for around the clock because he was so critical.”

Rath’s six children took turns spending evenings, a day or two at a time with him, and his wife, Marilyn, stayed with him during the day.

“We got really good at sleeping on floors and odd pieces of furniture,” said Bridgette Readel of Hunter, Rath’s daughter.

On Feb. 8, Kim Rath died.

The virus

West Nile virus is a seasonal illness, generally flaring up in the summer and continuing into the fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In North Dakota, the riskiest times are July and August, when the Culex tarsalis mosquito, which transmits the disease, is abundant, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

And a human case has been reported in every county in North Dakota since surveillance of the illness started in 2002.

The state will begin its seasonal surveillance of West Nile on Saturday.

“Last year had the highest number of WNV disease cases reported nationally since 2003,” said Michelle Feist, West Nile Program manager with the North Dakota Department of Health.

That year, there were 89 cases of West Nile in the state and one death. In addition, West Nile was identified in 14 horses, two birds and a dog.

Birds serve as the virus reservoir, but WNV is primarily spread by mosquitos. In a few cases it has been spread through blood transfusions, breastfeeding or from mother to baby during pregnancy, but it cannot be spread through touching.

People infected with West Nile usually develop symptoms between three to 14 days after being bitten — if they show symptoms at all. Eighty percent of people who are infected don’t.

About 20 percent of people who become infected get flu-like symptoms — fever, headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting or swollen lymph glands.

Only one in 150 people infected develop severe illness from WNV, with a high fever, headaches, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis.

Some of those effects may be permanent, and West Nile can kill, too.

While a WNV vaccine exists for horses, there isn’t one for humans — a source of frustration for the Rath family.

“It’s very troubling, and mind-boggling, as to why I can vaccinate my horses but not my family,” Lindgren said. “It bothers us a lot.”

There are, however, some precautions people can take against the illness, and most of them revolve around preventing mosquito bites.

Many communities have vector control programs that take the fight to the mosquitoes, but that can’t kill 100 percent of mosquitos, so other precautions are needed.

People should use insect repellent using ingredients such as DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus or permethrin, and apply them according to instructions, the Department of Health said.

They should also wear protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts and pants, and limit outdoor activities between dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most likely to bite.

Another step is eliminating stagnant water in containers where mosquitoes lay their eggs — buckets, flower pots, old tires, wading pools and bird baths. Grass should be kept trimmed and window screens should be kept in good repair.

“We all need to be more vigilant about protecting ourselves from West Nile,” Lindgren said.

Kim Rath’s family, meanwhile, has found another way to help — helping organize a benefit 5K run in his honor, with funds going to Marisa Meidinger of Ashley, who is struggling with West Nile herself.

The race will begin at 10 a.m. June 8 in Centennial Park in Ashley, with registration starting at 9 a.m.

So far, 215 people have signed up.

“For a small town, that really is a good turnout,” Lindgren said.