Local man contracts West Nile

Published 12:44 am Sunday, October 18, 2009

An avid gardener, known for his love of his vegetables, berries, and fruits, Picayune resident Cecil Whitaker, spent most of his days in his yard, nurturing his plants, coaxing them to grow and bloom, then harvesting the fruits of his labor. He would often try new varieties but also had his favorites. “He has his arbors with grapes, the persimmons, the peas,” said his wife, Annie. “He loves his gardening — he does all the gardening and I do all the putting up.”

But it was probably one of those long days he spent in his yard last summer tending to his many plants, that almost killed him. Mr. Whitaker probably never felt the mosquito that bit him late last August, but within a few days, he began to feel ill.

Not wanting to take risks with his health, Mr. Whitaker, 82, and a deacon for Rolling Hills Baptist Church, went to see his doctor. With a fever and aches and pains, the doctor put Mr. Whitaker on anti-biotics, but a week later, his condition continued to deteriorate. “He just got worse,” explained Mrs. Whitaker.

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Admitted into Highland Hospital, his condition continued to worsen, and he was not responding to treatment. Every one was stumped. “It was a shock to the whole family,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “It was almost like walking around in a dream.”

He was soon transferred to Northshore Hospital where a infectious blood doctor decided his spinal fluid needed to be checked for the several viruses transmitted by mosquitoes..

It was then Mr. Whitaker was diagnosed as having the West Nile virus, and according to is wife, the Mississippi Department of Health in Jackson said was the only case in Pearl River County. “The lady there told me it was the only case in Pearl River County,” said Mrs. Whitaker.

State-wide there are 65 confirmed cases and there have been three deaths from the virus. Calls to the Department of Health for confirmation on the number of cases in the county were not returned before press time.

According to the Mississippi Department of Health, the first case of West Nile for 2009 occurred in Harrison County in July, although a case that first surfaced in January was later confirmed as being the West Nile virus.

The MDOH warns people to avoid standing water and mosquito-prone areas when insects are most active. “West Nile virus season is here and it is important that all Mississippians take steps to protect themselves and their family members from mosquito-borne diseases, including West Nile virus,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Mary Currier said in a release last summer.

The MDOH recommends people take steps to avoid the West Nile virus, such as removing sources of standing water; avoiding mosquito-prone areas, especially between dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active; wearing protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and pants when in areas where mosquitoes are apt to be. They also recommend applying a DEET-based mosquito repellent. West Nile is transmitted to mosquitoes when they bite an infected bird. When that mosquito then bites a human, they can transmit the disease.

Some people who are infected with West Nile may exhibit no symptoms, or mild ones, which can include a fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, a rash, muscle weakness or swollen lymph nodes. In a small number of cases, the infection can lead to paralysis, coma and possibly death. Mr. Whitaker was one of the most severe cases, with some paralysis.

While Mr. Whitaker has been hospitalized since early September, his wife says he has begun to make improvements. “They called him the miracle man because of his age,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “That if it had been anyone else, they probably wouldn’t have pulled through.”

Now in a long-term acute care facility for rehab, Mr. Whitaker continues to get better. “He is getting better — he can stand up with assistance and he can sit up,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “He is a strong elderly person and his love of the Lord is what has brought him through.”

For information on the West Nile virus, visit the MDOH Web site at www.HealthyMS.com/westnile, or call the WNV toll-free hotline from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 1-1-877-978-6453.