US health officials brace for mosquito-borne virus that can cause paralysis and death as temperatures rise

US health officials brace for mosquito-borne virus that can cause paralysis and death as temperatures rise
CDC/James Gathany
  • Oklahoma has reported its first West Nile virus death of the season.
  • The mosquito-borne illness can be deadly for older and immunocompromised individuals.

As temperatures warm, US health officials are braced for rising rates of West Nile virus, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that can cause meningitis, paralysis, and death.

Oklahoma reported its first West Nile death of the year on Thursday, in a resident who had been hospitalized with the illness.

In 2021, eight people got sick and one died of West Nile virus in Oklahoma, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus often infects people without causing symptoms, but can be deadly if it reaches the brain.

Cases of West Nile virus typically spike during the summer months, with the mosquito season spanning from spring through late fall. At least 10 cases have been reported to the CDC this year.

As the weather warms and more people participate in outdoor activities, health officials expect to see more cases in Oklahoma, state epidemiologist Jolianne Stone said in a press release. Other regions anticipate similar trends.


"With the monsoon, with the rain, with the warm temperatures, we could have the ideal environment for mosquitoes to breed," Johnny Diloné of the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department in Arizona told ABC15.

Arizona was among the states hardest hit by West Nile virus in 2021, along with New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. A total of 2,695 cases of West Nile were reported to the CDC last year, including 191 individuals who died of the disease, according to the CDC.

Widow whose husband was left paralyzed by West Nile urges people to be careful

One of the Arizona cases was a 71-year-old man in Maricopa County. His wife, Vickie Beard, said he was hospitalized and treated for COVID-19 before he got the mosquito virus. Weeks later, when he was recovering at home, he woke up paralyzed and landed back in the hospital.

He was in a coma for several days before he died, local news station FOX10 reported.

Older people are at a higher risk of getting severely ill or dying of West Nile virus, as are people with compromised immune systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned.


Most people who come into contact with the virus do not get sick, according to the CDC. About one in five people infected will come down with a fever and flu-like symptoms such as headache, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, or rashes.

A smaller portion of cases escalate to neurological illness, which can cause paralysis among other severe symptoms.

Barbara Puls told ABC15 that her brother-in-law was also paralyzed due to West Nile virus in 2021.

"He just absolutely collapsed in the bathroom, just dead weight, was never able to move again," she said. It is not clear whether he survived.

Beard, who lost her husband late last year, told CBS5 that her mission is to raise awareness about mosquito-borne diseases in the wake of his death.


"Don't take for granted that it's not going to happen to you because it can happen to anybody," she said. "Be proactive. Wear your bug spray."