West Nile victim slowly getting back to normal

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Dianna Roberson is once again leading a normal life a year aftercontracting West Nile Encephalitis. Almost.

Roberson, 55, was diagnosed with a severe case of the West Nilevirus last summer and still fights some of the lasting effects ofthe exposure, but can now live her life again.

“They way I see it, West Nile took a year of my life,” she said.”For six months it was all I could do to get up, fix a bath, andmake something to eat.”

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Roberson said after she was infected last year she was sick aweek in her home, thinking it was the flu, before she went to thehospital. She stayed there a week and was diagnosed the virus.

There is no cure for West Nile in humans, who are a dead-endhost for the virus that is normally transferred among birds andmosquitoes. Doctors can only treat the symptoms.

“A year ago, if someone had asked me if I would ever live anormal life, I would have told them ‘no’,” she said. “Now I can,but maybe just a little slower.”

In mild cases, the symptoms resemble the flu with head or bodyaches, fever, and nausea. In severe cases, however, it can causeparalysis, sight or hearing loss, nervous system damage, braindamage, or even death.

“When you have all that going on inside you, and there’s nomedicine to help, your body has to fight,” Roberson said. “Mine wasnot as severe as some. I’m almost back to normal.”

Almost, but not quite. Roberson missed six months of work afterbeing diagnosed. Even now, she can only work part-time as apharmacy technician at Wal-Mart.

“I could only work three hours a day when I first started back,”she said.

After working 40-hour weeks for most of her life, she finds thesituation depressing. Roberson, who is single, said even the moremundane chores common to single-living, such as keeping up thehouse and paying bills, are tough and quickly tire her.

Her memory has also been affected by the infection, she said.It’s not as quick as it used to be.

“It’s hard to believe something that small can make you thatsick,” she said of both the virus and mosquitoes.

Roberson admitted she had not taken precautions againstmosquitoes prior to getting the virus. She is not a televisionwatcher and had not read the warnings in the newspaper or heardthem on the radio, and was unaware of the dangers.

Last year, the state experienced one of the largest outbreaks ofWest Nile ever documented with 193 human cases reported, including12 deaths. Nationwide, there were more than 4,000 cases and 284deaths. It was the first year for West Nile to be found inMississippi.

Once infected, Roberson said, a person becomes immune to thevirus because their body will produce sufficient antibodies tofight the infection.

The fear, however, remains.

“I loved to work in the yard,” she said. “Now I don’t do it veryoften, partly because it scares me and partly because it tires meout too much.”

Roberson feels she is lucky, though, when compared to many ofthe other severe cases of West Nile diagnosed in the state. She metmany of the survivors during meetings of the West Nile VirusSupport Group sponsored by St. Dominic Hospital. Many of them areparalyzed or suffer from sight or hearing loss, among otherailments.

“It was sad to me to see how it affected all of them,” she said.”I would often leave the meetings in tears.”

Roberson is one of the few West Nile survivors to talk to themedia about her illness. She said she wants to serve as a warningto area residents to take the proper precautions to guard againstmosquitoes.

“That’s what concerns me now,” she said. “People are still notas concerned as they should be.”