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West Nile can take heavy toll

Many struggle with debilitating effects of virus

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West Nile survivor Mary Tilger has been selling T-shirts over the Internet from her home in Broomfield, Colo.

West Nile survivor Mary Tilger has been selling T-shirts over the Internet from her home in Broomfield, Colo.

Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

DENVER — Mary Tilger considers herself one of the in-between people — the West Nile virus didn't kill her, but it left the 32-year-old mother unable to care for her children for weeks.

"I am very healthy. I exercise, and I am not overweight. But I had severe tremors in my arms and legs, double vision and severe headaches," the Denver woman said Friday.

Tilger was diagnosed with meningitis, one of the more severe effects of the virus that has killed 18 people in Colorado this year. Colorado is the hardest hit among the more than 30 states infected by the virus this summer.

While the headlines have focused on the dead, all of them elderly, hundreds of Colorado residents are grappling with the debilitating effects of the mosquito-borne virus. Approximately half the infections — more than 500 — are in people ages 25 to 49.

"Younger people shouldn't go out and get bitten thinking they will get immune. We have plenty of cases of severe illness in younger people," said Dr. Ned Calonge, chief medical officer for the Colorado Health Department.

Dr. Thomas Perille, chief of hospital medicine for Kaiser Permanente, said he is seeing many patients like Tilger. They are able to leave the hospital, but they leave with partial paralysis in some cases or headaches that knock them off their feet.

"Some people who are 30 and 40 are surviving, but they are not necessarily neurologically intact," Perille said. "It is not a piece of cake. This week we discharged a woman in her 30s with residual paralysis. And we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg."

Health officials have said that tens of thousands of people in Colorado could be infected, though the vast majority of cases are mild. Still, of the more than 1,000 people with West Nile, nearly one of every four — 243 people — have meningitis or the more severe brain inflammation called encephalitis.

Nationally, the percentage is even higher: 33 percent.

Although health officials have urged people not to burden hospitals by coming in with minor fevers, Dr. Gray Houlton of Kaiser said the seriously ill should seek treatment as soon as possible to ease symptoms.

Kaiser Permanente is still getting hundreds of calls daily asking for advice about the disease, though the number has declined slightly, Houlton said.

State officials say the West Nile season has probably peaked and will decline as daylight decreases. Female mosquitoes preparing for hibernation switch from blood meals to plants.

Even so, health officials expect many more people to report illnesses.

"We're prepared to take calls for the next four to five weeks," Houlton said.

Tilger, meanwhile, is back to trying to keep up with her two boys, ages 3 and 4, while fighting off headaches.

"I have no idea if this will ever end," she said.

On the Net: CDC: www.cdc.gov

State health agency: www.cdphe.state.co.us

Prevention tips: www.fightthebitecolorado.com