Woman dies of West Nile, state confirmation lagging

Published 12:15 am Sunday, July 23, 2006

Gloria Barber has apparently become the first person in Louisiana to die of West Nile encephalitis this year, although state still has not confirmed she had the disease.

Barber, 74, was admitted to Lakeview Regional Medical Center near Mandeville on June 30, said her son, Craig Simon. Although hospital doctors diagnosed the mosquito-borne virus within a week, he said, state health officials have not acknowledged the case three weeks later.

“People should know about it, and people should be able to find out about it sooner,” Simon said. “The thing I’m having a hard time with is the second type of confirmation.”

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The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided positive test results to Lakeview’s doctors, Simon said, but the Department of Health and Hospitals required additional testing by the state epidemiologist.

Mark Lombard, chief investigator for the St. Tammany Parish coroner’s office, said Friday that Barber’s cause of death was complications from West Nile virus. He confirmed she was diagnosed at Lakeview, and that the state health department had been notified.

Lakeview officials declined to comment on the case, and referred questions to the state. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Hospitals said Friday that the agency has not recorded any deaths from West Nile this year.

The department Monday confirmed two other cases of West Nile infection, both involving people who are recovering. One, who developed West Nile encephalitis, lives in Tangipahoa Parish. Another, who developed a milder form of the virus, is a St. Tammany resident.

Simon said mosquito-control officials could have been directed to his rural area north of Covington for additional spraying, but he hasn’t seen any trucks. Although the testing used to confirm West Nile infection can take five to seven days, he said, health officials should act sooner to notify the public of a threat.

“It shouldn’t be our responsibility to notify our neighbors,” he said.

Barber was healthy before she was hospitalized, her son said. Born in Hammond, she worked in Tulane University’s football department for more than 15 years and retired in Diamondhead, Miss., before returning to Louisiana about 10 years ago.

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes that have bitten infected birds. The infection initially manifests as flulike symptoms. In recent years, cases of human infection typically have emerged in Louisiana in late June or early July.