VERNAL — A Uintah County man who died Sept. 3 is the state's first death linked to West Nile virus infection, the TriCounty Health Department has confirmed.
Shirley Dale Cook, 72, described by family and friends as a burly former construction worker with the heart and lungs of an 18-year-old, began showing symptoms of infection Aug. 5, his and wife Bette's 55th wedding anniversary.
A day later, fever, nausea, dehydration, shaking and loss of muscle control got bad enough that an ambulance had to be called, said Cook's daughter, Kathy Searle.
Four days later, Searle said, Cook was taken by helicopter to St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake. He soon developed severe neurological symptoms — encephalitis and memory loss. He was placed on total life support for a week.
The two rural eastern counties of Duchesne and Uintah now have almost half of Utah's 23 confirmed human West Nile virus cases — four from Duchesne County, seven from Uintah County, said TriCounty Health Department director Joseph Shaffer.
"For most people, the risk of serious illness from West Nile virus is low, but this man's death reminds us that we all need to take precautions to protect ourselves and our families," Shaffer said.
The Utah Department of Health is following up a number of other cases, said spokesman Steve McDonald, noting that the recent increase in human cases is no surprise given the two- to 14-day incubation period, with symptoms appearing about a week later.
Most people infected with the virus do not have serious symptoms or become sick, McDonald said. Out of the 23 cases the health department has confirmed so far, 13 have been the West Nile fever and 10 have been neuro-invasive.
West Nile fever symptoms, which affect 1 in 5 people infected, are similar to the flu and can last up to two weeks. But the more serious neuro-invasive symptoms, displayed by 1 in 150 people, affect the brain and spinal cord.
"The majority of people that aren't sick enough to go to a doctor, we don't find out about. So our 23 cases we are reporting right now are only the worst cases, and many more are going undetected because they aren't sick enough to be tested or see a health care provider," McDonald said.
Although the risk of severe illness increases with age, no age group is exempt from the illness.
A factor that plays a role in the incidence of exposure is the Uintah Basin's proximity to Dinosaur National Monument, which has a large reservoir and where spraying for mosquitos is prohibited.
"They do what they can . . . that is just the nature of the beast, so we are actually doing really good," Shaffer said. "Look at the population we take care of and you are looking at 11 out of 40,000."
Another area to be hit hard by the virus bite this summer is Utah County, where the victims are coming from an area similar to the basin.
Only one case is in Salt Lake County. Thirteen counties in Utah are reporting West Nile Virus activity: Carbon, Davis, Duchesne, Emery, Grand, Iron, Juab, Salt Lake, Tooele, Uintah, Utah, Washington and Weber.
So far, the count of infected animals stands at 30 infected horses, eight dead birds, 64 mosquito pools and 50 sentinel chickens. In 2004, 11 humans were found with the virus in Utah.
Most mosquito activity is seen in August. By October, the risk of the virus diminishes in northern Utah, and by November for southern Utah, McDonald said. Last week, the health department saw fewer numbers of mosquitos; however, McDonald said the risk is still high and Utahns — no matter where they are — need to take precautions.
"We haven't had a good frost yet to kill the majority of them. So the risk is still there, and people still need to practice the personal protection of wearing repellent and wearing long sleeves and extra clothing during the night when mosquitos are biting," McDonald said.
Shaffer and McDonald urged people to take the proper precautions and continue to enjoy the outdoors. When you go outside wear long sleeves and use DEET, said Shaffer, who uses DEET at a concentration of 100 percent and can testify first-hand how well it works.
"There isn't a minimum recommendation, but you have to know that the more you have on, the more hours of protection you get. Five percent DEET gives an adult an hour of protection," he said, urging that people use at least 30 percent DEET.
"Everybody who is in the basin has the potential to be exposed, that's the bottom line. The big message is prevention, prevention and more prevention."
Cook loved his family, daughter Searle said, and had 14 grandchildren and nine great-greatchildren. He enjoyed fishing, hunting and camping. He grew up in Vernal and worked in construction. He built 46 homes in Vernal and 76 in Duchesne. He lost his leg at 59 years old while doing construction on the Flaming Gorge Dam.
For more information on West Nile virus, visit www.health.utah.gov/wnv or call 1-888-EPI-UTAH.