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West Nile virus often goes undiagnosed

Profile image for By Bj Lewis / Staff Writer
By Bj Lewis / Staff Writer

It took a little time and effort for one Denton woman to be diagnosed with the West Nile virus.

The drawn-out process illustrates the issues doctors face when trying to diagnose a virus with symptoms resembling so many other illnesses and with drastically different threat levels to different segments of the population.

“No one told her she had West Nile,” Debbie Pierce said of her daughter, 22-year-old Samantha Pierce. “As far as she knew, nothing was wrong with her. No one told her what it could possibly be or to stay in bed.

“They just said, ‘Here’s some medicine, see you later.’”

Debbie Pierce said she was out of town when her daughter became sick, but was in constant contact with her until she returned home.

She said Samantha first went to the hospital around midnight July 26. She showed the staff a bite on the back of her leg that her mother thought was infected. Hospital staff gave her fluids, drew blood and sent her home with a painkiller prescription.

Samantha Pierce became sick and didn’t know if it was a side effect of the medicine.

After a few days, she visited another local clinic. At the suggestion of a family member who is a nurse, she insisted she be checked for West Nile. Blood tests were done and more prescriptions given.

“At that point, she broke out in a rash; again, we didn’t know if it was the medicine or progression of whatever she had,” Debbie Pierce said. “All this time I was calling our family doctor to get her in as soon as possible.”

When Samantha Pierce finally saw her family doctor, she was told her symptoms did not match West Nile. The doctor was not going to draw blood because the clinic already had, but Debbie Pierce insisted. She said she had yet to hear back from the family doctor about the results.

In the meantime, she was contacted by the clinic, where a doctor informed her that Samantha Pierce’s blood work showed she had the West Nile virus at some point.

“The doctor did tell her there wasn’t medicine to get rid of it,” Debbie Pierce said. “It was a virus that would have to run its course. … But it was all guesswork. We spent a lot of money going to the doctor four different times, getting numerous prescriptions and not really knowing.”

Symptoms of West Nile fever include headache, nausea, vomiting and body aches, and some people might experience swollen lymph nodes and a skin rash.

Symptoms of the more severe West Nile neuro-invasive virus are high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, disorientation or stupor, tremors or convulsions, muscle weakness and vision loss, with some patients experiencing numbness, paralysis and coma.

Juan Rodriguez, chief epidemiologist with the Denton County Health Department, said the age and symptoms of patients cause difficulties in diagnosing West Nile infections.

“West Nile fever can appear like many things,” Rodriguez said. “When someone has a little more serious illness, more neurological symptoms, a doctor has to think of other things that cause those symptoms. It may not be on the top of the doctor’s mind that a young person would get it.”

Even with a diagnosis of West Nile fever, the treatment will most likely be medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. There is no specific treatment for West Nile infection.

Rodriguez said more people are asking to get tested for West Nile in light of the county’s recent outbreak.

“It’s hard to say how many people walk around with a mild illness. People may have West Nile fever, but they get over it in a few days,” he said. “They just recover and don’t seek medical care and don’t ever know.”

Rodriguez compared the virus to chickenpox, in that someone who has already had the virus builds up a tolerance and won’t get an infection when exposed to the virus after that.

BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is blewis@dentonrc.