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Kansas reports three deaths from West Nile virus as cases reach five-year high

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Kansas reports three deaths from West Nile virus as cases reach five-year high

Sep 22, 2023 | 2:14 pm ET
By AJ Dome
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Kansas reports three deaths from West Nile virus as cases reach five-year high
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This image depicts a mosquito in the process of ingesting her blood meal through the host’s skin surface. Her abdomen had taken on a red coloration because of its growing contents of host blood. The insect has been found to be a vector of West Nile virus. (James D. Gathany/CDC)

Three people in Kansas have died from West Nile virus infections this year, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

KDHE officials issued a warning for a high risk of the mosquito-borne disease on Sep. 13. The warning covers the entire state except for the southeast corner, which is under a moderate risk.

In addition to the three deaths, officials said in a statement that 17 other people reported suffering from neurological issues after being infected with the virus.

Kansas officials have recorded 22 cases of humans being infected so far this year. The state Department of Agriculture also reported seven cases of West Nile infections in horses in Barber, Butler, Douglas, Ford and Pratt counties.

Stephen Higgs, director of the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University in Manhattan, has a background in studying mosquito-borne diseases. He’s been involved in West Nile virus research since 1999. He said the 22 cases reported this year marks the highest number of human West Nile cases in Kansas since 2018.

“There’ve been more than 2.5 million people infected in the U.S. since 1999,” Higgs said, “and almost 3,000 deaths from it since then.”

In total, 702 West Nile cases have been confirmed in Kansas since 1999. In a statement, state public health veterinarian Erin Petro said Kansas is in the middle of the peak timeframe for West Nile virus transmission.

“With more widespread virus activity this year than in the previous several years, it’s important to take mosquito bite prevention measures to protect yourself, your family, and livestock against all mosquito-borne illnesses,” Petro said.

There is no human vaccine against West Nile, Higgs said, and scientists still aren’t sure exactly how the virus made its way into the U.S. According to the World Health Organization, West Nile was first isolated in a woman in the West Nile district of Uganda in Africa in 1937. The first known West Nile outbreak in humans began in 1999 in New York.

An annual West Nile vaccine exists for horses, Higgs said. People can only prevent exposure to mosquitos that may potentially carry the virus.

“The recommendation is that you wear DEET repellant when working outside,” Higgs said.

Removing stagnant bodies of water around a property is also a good method of mosquito prevention. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants is additionally recommended.

Higgs said at least 80% of people infected with West Nile don’t feel it. Others may feel symptoms like fever and muscle aches that can mirror other ailments. Severe cases of West Nile infection can cause swelling of the brain, which can lead to paralysis and other long-term neurological issues, or death. Horses infected with West Nile can exhibit symptoms such as depression, loss of appetite, and incoordination.

A notable recent case of West Nile affected Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network broadcaster Art Hains, who returned to the job this fall after being infected with the virus last year. According to the Springfield News-Leader, Hains was hospitalized in critical condition in September 2022. The newspaper reported Hains, who also serves as the voice of Missouri State University athletics, lost mobility in his legs and his breathing was impacted.

Hains told reporters with KY3-TV in Springfield in May that he doesn’t remember a mosquito bite, and that he’s improved enough through rehabilitation to return to broadcasting, albeit from a wheelchair.