St. George man dies from complications of West Nile virus

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ST. GEORGE — A St. George man has died just nine weeks after contracting a rare form of West Nile virus from a mosquito.

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Emery Matsko, 86, passed away on Oct. 13 after battling a series of symptoms and secondary illnesses after being infected with the rarest form of West Nile virus, West Nile encephalitis.

Emery Matsko’s battle with the disease required multiple hospitalizations and treatments starting nine weeks before his passing when he told his wife that “he just didn’t feel good,” Patty Matsko said.

“He was eating a piece of peach pie and then he stood up and told me he felt sick and was going to lie down,” she said.

He was taken to the hospital later that same day with a high fever and remained there for seven days while doctors ran a series of tests, diagnosing and treating him for pneumonia.

After his release, “he just got sicker and sicker,” Patty Matsko said. When he returned to the hospital a few days later, an infectious disease specialist was called in and an MRI and spinal tap were performed.

The test revealed that he was infected with West Nile virus, which had developed into West Nile neuroinvasive disease. West Nile neuroinvasive disease occurs when the virus enters and infects the brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once the infection took hold, Emery Matsko went through a series of hospitalizations as his health continued to decline, even leading to paralysis. On Oct. 7, he was released from the hospital and returned home.

“He was in bad shape, but there was nothing more they could do for him,” Patty Matsko said. “He told me he wanted to be home for as long as he had left.”

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Six days later, he passed away.

Emery Matsko’s cause of death was listed as respiratory failure with an onset of 48-hours, due to, or as a consequence of, congestive heart failure along with other significant conditions including West Nile Virus encephalopathy and aortic valve disease, according to his death certificate.

According to the CDC, four out of five people infected with West Nile virus will never have any symptoms, and of those, the chance of it developing into West Nile neuroinvasive disease occurs only in 1 in 150 infections.

David Heaton, Southwest Utah Public Health Department public information officer, told St. George News that human cases of the virus are rare, and about 80% of those infected with it won’t have any symptoms at all.

“The chance of someone developing symptoms from the virus is rare,” Heaton said. “But developing the neuroinvasive disease is even more rare.”

Heaton added that children, elderly adults and those with poor immune systems are at higher risk of experiencing symptoms, and are also at a higher risk of developing a more severe form of the disease.

Patty Matsko said that while her husband was in his 80s, he was in good health and was very active. He still took care of his own landscaping, traveled the world and ran a business.

“He had just gotten done cleaning the pool the day he was bit by the mosquito,” she said.

The transmission of West Nile

Since mosquitoes are vectors for the disease, the Southwest Mosquito Abatement and Control District has a team of trained technicians tasked with monitoring and treating the 400-600 mosquito sites spread across the county. The team checks for mosquito larvae in everywhere standing water is known to occur, which is where most species of mosquitoes lay their eggs.

This year, the number of mosquitoes testing positive for the virus are down significantly, Sean Amodt, manager of the Southwest Mosquito Abatement and Control District, told St. George News.

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However, he said, the insects that are infected are carrying a concentrated strain of the virus.

“We have fewer mosquitoes testing positive for the virus, but we are basically finding more of the virus in the ones that test positive,” Amodt said.

One possible reason for the concentrated strain may have to do with the means by which a mosquito becomes infected.

West Nile virus infections occur primarily in birds, and it is spread to mosquitoes when they feed on the infected fowl. The blood circulates the virus until it reaches the mosquito’s salivary glands, which can then be injected into a human when they feed.

Because the cycle of the virus begins in birds, which are migratory, the only means of controlling the spread of the virus is to control the population of infected mosquitoes, Amodt said.

Further, Southern Utah is home to a number of major birding locations and sanctuaries along the Virgin River corridor which attracts many species of migratory birds, including those infected with the virus.

Making matters worse, the virus is being detected in the Southwest following a rainier winter, with Arizona reporting the highest number of cases of any other state, Amodt said, adding that Nevada and New Mexico are also considered a “hot zone” for the virus.

“Those three states are the epicenter for West Nile,” he said.

As a result, the migratory birds coming from those areas into Utah have a greater likelihood of being infected with the virus. And not only that, but the infected birds seem to be sicker when they arrive, which may account for the higher concentration of West Nile virus found in local mosquitoes.

Most people infected with West Nile virus either don’t develop signs or symptoms or have only minor ones such as fever and mild headache. Less than 1% will develop a neuroinvasive disease, such as West Nile encephalitis — the strain that infected Emery Matsko — which causes inflammation of the spinal cord or brain.

Recent studies show that the elderly account for a large number of severe cases and deaths caused by the West Nile virus, and the infection can become deadly when the virus crosses the blood-brain barrier.

Patty Matsko said the loss of her husband is unbearable at times, and after 41 years of marriage, she has lost her best friend.

Her goal at this point is to raise public awareness, particularly among the elderly, that the virus can be deadly and precautions should be taken to reduce the risk of contracting the illness, rare as it may be.

“The chances of anyone becoming ill from the virus may be rare,” Patty Matsko said. “Rare or not, it killed my husband, and he’s gone.”

Mosquito bites can be prevented by avoiding being outside during dusk and dawn when the insects are most active. Mosquito repellent containing DEET, picaridin, lemon oil or eucalyptus oil can also help to prevent bites. It is recommended to wear long-sleeved clothing while outside.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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