The case of a Lawrence man recovering from symptoms of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus should serve as a cautionary tale to other Kansans, a state health official said Wednesday.
The virus already has killed one Kansan and infected at least 13 others this year.
Mark Zwahl said he received word from his doctor Wednesday morning that his blood had tested positive for the virus that earlier this month was confirmed to have killed a Butler County man.
Zwahl's results came nearly two weeks after being bitten by a mosquito while walking his dog, Maya. It wasn't long before he started complaining of intense backaches, dizzying disorientation, extreme fatigue and eventually a tightening of tendons that made even simple tasks virtually impossible.
"I woke up one morning and I can't stand -- I can walk, but I can't stand still," Zwahl said, recalling the progression of his pain. "What a bizarre thing. So then I'm thinking I've got Lou Gehrig's disease or something. It's like I'm dying. I'm going to have ALS and die."
The symptoms have subsided enough in recent days that Zwahl has been able to resume his responsibilities as owner of two Lawrence coffee shops.
Official classification of his condition remains a suspected case of West Nile infection, pending further tests.
Gail Hansen, deputy state epidemiologist, said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control worked to confirm only the most severe cases of West Nile infection: those leading to encephalitis (swelling of the brain) or meningitis (swelling of the lining of the brain).
Zwahl's case may or may not be confirmed, Hansen said, but it does serve to illustrate the importance of diligently avoiding mosquito bites in the first place.
l Apply insect repellent that contains DEET.
l Wear long sleeves and long pants.
l Try to stay indoors at dawn and at dusk, when mosquitoes are most likely to bite.
l Eliminate standing water whenever possible, to reduce breeding grounds.
"For West Nile virus, what can we do?" Hansen said. "We can't vaccinate, because there's no vaccine. And we can't treat, because there is no specific treatment. But you can prevent yourself from getting mosquito bites.
"We know we've got West Nile virus in the state. We knew we had it last year. We know it's back again. This is the one thing people can do to keep themselves from becoming ill, whether it's mild illness or real severe illness."
One in 150 people bitten by an infected mosquito will develop severe illness, Hansen said. The others could face anything from flu-like symptoms to mild discomfort to nothing at all.
Several physicians in Lawrence have been testing patients for West Nile, but evidence of a confirmed human illness has yet to surface, said Kim Ens, disease control program coordinator for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.
Virus 'a blessing'
The virus is spread by mosquitoes, which pick it up by biting an infected bird or horse, Ens said. The virus cannot be spread directly to humans from horses or birds, nor can it be transmitted through normal person-to-person contact, such as touching, kissing or caring for someone who is infected.
Zwahl, for his part, said he was starting to feel better. He spent part of the day Tuesday lugging nearly a dozen 150-pound bags of coffee around one of his shops, and would continue to rest as much as possible.
"Basically I'm feeling pretty good, but I still have this funny tendon pain in my legs and in my arms," Zwahl said Wednesday afternoon at his home in east Lawrence. "It's the weirdest pain. You know how when you smack your funny bone, and ... there's just that sort of ache in your elbow? Once you get past the I-wish-I-were-dead feeling, then there's this ache? That's very similar to the feeling I feel all down the backs of my legs and behind my knees."
But he'll take it.
"It feels totally good to know what it is," Zwahl said. "This West Nile is a blessing. It goes away."