The West Nile virus is now a permanent part of the Arizona ecosystem, says the Cronkite News study

PHOENIX – Every day is a challenge for Bruce Gran, 52, who was diagnosed with the West Nile virus seven years ago.

"From day one, it was a migraine headache," said the Tucson resident. "My short-term memory is terrible, I'm not big enough to have the effects I have."

Gran is one of hundreds of Arizonans who have been infected by the Western Nile since the disease transmitted by mosquitoes was discovered in the state in 2003.

Sixteen years later, the virus is here to stay, according to a study by the Northern Arizona University of Flagstaff and the Translational Genomics Research Institute of Phoenix. And the southern half of Arizona seems to be an uninterrupted source of West Nile in neighboring states.

There are different types of mosquitoes in Arizona, but the two main carrying the West Nile – Culex tarsalis and Culex quinquefasciatus – remain throughout the year due to the mild winters of Central Arizona, said the associate professor of TGEN David Engelthaler.

"We could actually find the remains of the original stock that hit the United States in New York and that has rallied across the United States," he said. "There's another evolving strain that has evolved in Texas and is now also a permanent resident in Maricopa County."

The symptoms of Western Nile may vary, making it difficult for doctors to diagnose. Most cases cause mild flu-like symptoms; the others end in death.

Some patients, like Gran, can experience life-changing neuroinvasive disease.

"The more you get into doing things, the more difficult the virus is," he said.

The disease has deprived the technical car of feeling in three of his fingers, so he binds his hands every day.

"I can not hear anything," Grandma said. "They are insensitive, but again, when I bend my joints beyond a certain point, it seems that someone is leading a peak through them."

Even the West Nile is the reason for the serious headache of Gran.

"It's a seven or a eight on the pain scale" of 10 years, said Gran. "It gets worse, but it never goes below that."

After the diagnosis, he began to experience a short-term memory loss.

"I can watch a sitcom tonight and watch it again tomorrow or a couple of days later and do not know that I saw it," Grandma said.

His wife, Christine Gran, said the illness had drastically affected their family.

"Ask my children, my three children," he said. "They do not really have their dad, it's just this debilitating."

Many Western Nile patients experience symptoms so severe that they can not work, but even for those who can, daily activities can be distressing.

"There have been days for years when he would have gone to work for a couple of hours and it would have been done," Christine said. "He only does it until 2 o'clock and then everything becomes atrocious, all his body hurts and he just needs to go home and sit down and we've lost so many days of work."

For the days when Gran can work on cars, he needs a list to remember what jobs need to be completed.

When asked how the disease affected his social life, Gran replied "What social life?"

The business of catching mosquitoes

After the first case of West Nile virus appeared in Arizona in 2003, Maricopa County has expanded its vector control program to study and control the mosquito population in the Phoenix subway. From the following year, the number of cases in Arizona has decreased steadily, up to 27 in 2018.

The Dan Armijo County Field Inspector helps to place mosquito traps throughout Phoenix. Vector Control exposes over 800 traps a day.

In a recent afternoon, Armijo stopped in a small park in a district to the west, jumped out of his truck and filled a trap of dry ice from a cooler in the back.

The mosquito traps are filled with dry ice and attached to a battery-powered net and fan, which attracts and traps insects. They are then taken to the Maricopa County Vector Control Laboratory for examination to track patterns of mosquitoes and West Nile virus. (Photo by Sarah Donahue / Cronkite News)

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Maricopa and Pima counties have the highest reported cases of West Nile virus in Arizona. "Similar to" flu "symptoms are common; however, most young and healthy people are generally asymptomatic. If you suspect you are infected, notify the public health of Maricopa County for community safety. (Photo by Sarah Donahue / Cronkite News)

This mosquito trap, located next to a Goodyear equine pen, helps mosquitoes in the Maricopa County vector control area. The West Nile virus is typically widespread by the mosquitoes that bite the birds that have the virus. Every mammal that bites is sensitive to the virus; however, horses and humans are classified as "dead-end" guests, which means they can not spread the virus to other pungent mosquitoes. (Photo by Sarah Donahue / Cronkite News)

Dry ice is used because it evaporates to release a cloud of carbon dioxide – something that mosquitoes are attracted to, Armijo said. It is the females that bite people and other mammals to extract the blood to incubate their eggs.

Armijo said that mosquitoes are attracted to Arizona because, despite the dry climate, the state actually has lots of stagnant water – puddles, water fountains, neglected pools.

Armijo hung the trap on a tree branch near a fountain in the park.

"We will prepare this trap from one day to the next," he said. "We'll come back and get it in the morning."

The traps are individually bar-coded and numbered so that the inspectors can keep track of what they find. The number of mosquitoes captured by traps varies depending on the weather conditions and the amount of stagnant water nearby. The caught mosquitoes are separated by gender because only females bite and carry the West Nile, Armijo said.

"If even a mosquito comes back with a trace of the virus filament, we'll tarnish the entire square mile," Armijo said.

Here to stay

Engelthaler said the West Nile study was strongly focused on Maricopa County because the virus is mainly found in the southern half of the state.

Since the disease is a permanent resident of the Arizona ecosystem, the strains could affect adjacent states, Engelthaler said.

"The wires that appear in Yuma and southern California seem to come out annually or regularly from Maricopa County," he said. "The county of Maricopa is a kind of source for the neighboring areas to regularly obtain West Nile virus".

Engelthaler believes that the results of the study can help Maricopa County control the spread of West Nile and increase awareness of the virus.

"We think this information will provide more precise and targeted control efforts," said Engelthaler.

Residents of Maricopa can file an online carrier complaint. The county will send inspectors into the area to set up traps.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Do you have an idea for the story? Write to us [email protected]

Leave a comment

Send a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.