West Nile outbreak worst in a decade; Cass may spray again next week for disease control

WAHPETON, N.D. - Meredith Mitskog is no longer fighting for her life, though she has some work ahead to get back to good health. The 71-year-old Wahpeton woman was hospitalized at Sanford Health in Fargo two weeks ago after being stricken by West...

Testing mosquitoes
Ben Prather performs a diagnostic test on mosquitoes for West Nile disease at Cass County Vector Control on Wednesday in West Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

WAHPETON, N.D. - Meredith Mitskog is no longer fighting for her life, though she has some work ahead to get back to good health.

The 71-year-old Wahpeton woman was hospitalized at Sanford Health in Fargo two weeks ago after being stricken by West Nile virus.

Severe headaches, fatigue and nausea gave way to encephalitis, and she went into a coma that lasted until late last week, her husband said Tuesday. For a while, her life hung in the balance, he said.

"I didn't know if I was going to lose my wife or not," said Curtis Mitskog, 77.

On Tuesday, Meredith started aggressive physical therapy to help her gain back her strength, he said.


"It could be a week. It could be three weeks," though she's expected to make a full recovery, Curtis Mitskog said.

Nationwide, more people are suffering like Mitskog than have in more than a decade. Severe cases of West Nile disease have hit 1,118 people in 47 states, killing 41 of them as of Aug. 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's the highest number of cases reported through this point in any summer since 1999, when West Nile virus was first detected in the U.S., the CDC reports.

In the region:

• North Dakota had 19 human cases with no deaths as of Aug. 22, the state Department of Health reports.

Cass County reported two human cases and one horse case by Aug. 16, the health department reports.

Burleigh and Dickey counties have each had four reported human cases of West Nile Virus.

• The Minnesota Department of Health reported 35 human cases with one death in 19 counties as of Monday.


The Minnesota victim was identified as an elderly Stevens County woman.

• South Dakota has had 82 cases with one death as of Aug. 22, the state Department of Health reported.

Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota account for 75 percent of the West Nile cases reported so far this year, the CDC reports. But it is Texas, far and away, that has been the hardest hit, with 537 cases reported and 19 deaths as of Aug. 21, the CDC reported. Reports on the Texas Department of State Health Services website peg the number of Texas cases higher as of Tuesday, with 783 overall cases causing 31 deaths.

Local counts still low

Ben Prather, director of vector control for Cass County, said the county's mosquito traps are averaging eight mosquitoes each. He said there might be spraying next week if the weather stays warm or if mosquito counts rise.

He said the county is checking for culex tarsalis mosquitoes, the main culprit for spreading West Nile virus in this region. Under a microscope, the disease-passing skeeter can be identified by the white band around its proboscis - the appendage a mosquito uses to suck blood.

Last week, he said the county used large trucks to use a chemical fog to kill mosquitoes, and they've been using small vehicles to fog in the country.

If a culex tarsalis feeds on a bird that's infected, such as a crow, it might take 10 to 14 days to become infectious. If it then bites a human, it can pass on the West Nile virus, Prather said.


So far, the spraying has been about every two weeks, to catch the waves of mosquitoes as they hatch, Prather said.

The county did aerial spray about July 2, he said. Funds are available to aerial spray several times before the end of the year if needed, he said.

"We've had such a tremendously dry period," Prather said, helping to keep mosquito populations down.

In Moorhead, Public Works Director Chad Martin said spraying is not in the cards for now.

Trap counts for biting females for Monday and Tuesday were 19 and 20, respectively, according to the city's website.

Crews are out five days a week checking traps, Martin said.

"I think Mother Nature is helping us. It's dry," Martin said, though the city also spread "a fair amount of larviciding" early in the year, he said.

Clay County doesn't have a mosquito abatement program, though the county does trap mosquitoes for identification purposes.


How to fight the bite

The best defense is a good offense.

• Eliminate standing pools of water around homes and businesses.

• You can spray or fog around your property with chemicals to kill adult mosquitoes and there are larvicides as well.

• Use mosquito repellents containing DEET, or other EPA-approved repellents if you are going to be outside.

• Wear long-sleeve shirts and pants.

• Mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn. Consider staying inside at these times, or use insect repellents.

• Change water in pet dishes and replace water in bird baths weekly.


• Keep children's wading pools empty when not in use.

• Keep screens on windows and doors in good repair.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

So what is West Nile?

West Nile virus is a mosquito-transmitted virus that in about 1 percent of cases causes meningitis, encephalitis or a polio-like illness in humans.

Symptoms may appear three to 14 days after a person is bitten.

About 80 percent of people who get the virus show no symptoms. Most of the rest may get a fever, headaches, body aches, swollen lymph glands or a rash.


Less than 1 percent suffer extreme symptoms, which can include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, tremors, vision loss, muscle weakness, numbness, convulsions or paralysis, the CDC reports.

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