Still a Threat

By ANTHONY WARREN,

N’siders learn no vaccine but good treatments for West Nile.

Brenda and Jim McIntyre are busy Northsiders, and by all accounts healthy for their age. 

The two own their own business, The Complete Flag Source, and work six days a week, often 10 hours or more.

The Northside couple never thought about West Nile Virus, nor the impacts it could have on their lives.

That all changed in early July, when Jim came down with a fever and chills. After a litany of tests, it was determined he had been infected with the virus. Nearly two months later, the 71-year-old has made significant progress, but has a long road to near full recovery.

“Neither one of us work out every day. Jim had some health issues before, but we’re not sedentary people who had retired,” Brenda said. “We were busy. We had no plans to get sick, much less this sick.”

While Jim is in recovery, Brenda has taken on extra duties at the store. The two have been sustained by the prayers and thoughts from family, friends and customers.

“We have a big support system. Jim grew up in Jackson and he does know a lot of people,” Brenda said. “People have no idea that when they say, ‘we’re praying for you,’ that’s huge.”

Jim is one of just a few reported cases of West Nile in 2019. Through August 19, health officials had confirmed six cases across the state, including Jim’s.

“It’s the lowest I can remember,” said Liz Sharlot, spokeswoman for the Mississippi State Department of Health. 

“The species that carries the virus likes small amounts of water. We’ve had a large amount of rain,” she said. “They can live in a teaspoon of water. If a child’s frisbee is left outside and turned upside down, the mosquitoes can live in it.”

Through July 30, the state received between 35 and 40 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. While that rain has caused flooding problems, it has meant too much water for the insects to thrive.

Mosquitoes known for carrying the virus include Culex pipiens, Culex tarsalis and Culex quinquefasciatus. The carriers are most prevalent from evening morning, but can transmit the disease any time of day, the Vector Disease Control International website states.

“The best advice is to protect yourself. You have to worry and take protective measures,” Sharlot said.

Those measures include wearing long sleeves and pants, as well as repellants with Deet. “Get rid of standing water. Don’t be out at dusk or dawn,” she said. “Cover as much skin as possible. Anybody at any time can get sick.”

Efforts to develop a vaccine have made little progress, in large part, because the vaccine wasn’t commercially viable.

“When West Nile first became apparent, we started to develop a vaccine, but there wasn’t much commercial interest in it,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) with the National Institutes of Health.

Right now, NIAID has a human vaccine in the clinical trials, but it’s unlikely the vaccine will be ready for public consumption “for at least another few years,” he said.

How long depends on the success and failure of the clinical trials, whether or not it’s safe, and whether or not it works. According to trials, the “vaccine proved to be safe, but the trouble is it did not induce a strong immune response,” Fauci said. “We’re now trying a higher dose.”

If the higher dose proves successful, the next step would be bringing on a drug manufacturer to do additional research. That step could prove to be the more difficult challenge, considering what it would cost to produce the booster. 

To get an inoculation to market would likely cost more than a billion dollars. Meanwhile, there are only a few thousand reported cases of West Nile each year.

“Sometimes in a bad year, you go up to 5,000 or 9,000 (confirmed cases),” Fauci said. “You want to get a vaccine with a high usage and payback.”

The virus was first reported in the United States in 1999. Since 2008, Mississippi has had 915 cases, including 29 deaths, health department records show.

By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 48.8 million people contracted the flu during the 2017-18 influenza season, 959,000 people were hospitalized and 79,400 people died.

While a vaccine might not be on the horizon, Mississippi doctors are leading the effort to develop treatments to aid in patient recovery. 

Dr. Art Leis, a senior scientist with the Center for Neuroscience and Neurological Recovery with Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, has worked with other doctors to discover that treating patients with high doses of steroids helps West Nile victims regain mobility after the virus leaves their bodies.

In the worst cases, West Nile can lead to paralysis brought on by encephalitis-related swelling.  

“From an anecdotal perspective, we have had good success controlling the neural inflation by giving these steroids,” he said. “The regiment we’re using to combat West Nile is the same one we’ve been using for 30-plus years against multiple sclerosis: that is five days of extremely high steroids.

“It has become apparent that this is an effective treatment in many cases of West Nile Virus.”

That treatment has already helped Jim McIntyre with his recovery and has given the two hope that Jim will soon be back at their flag store.

As of last week, Jim was still in a wheelchair and still at Methodist Rehab. However, he’s come a long way from the dark days of the illness, when he was on a ventilator and in intensive care at St. Dominic Hospital.

“It’s going to take a long time, that’s the bottom line,” Brenda said. “He may make a very good recovery, close to 100 percent, but it will take a very long time. Two months from now, he will be better than he is now. Two months after that he will be better than that.”

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