West Nile virus changed boy's life over a year

Infection, rare in this state, spreads by mosquito bite

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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The mosquito bites covering Taylor Olson's body seemed harmless enough. They itched, as mosquito bites often do, but that was it.

Weeks later, the 16-year-old Vancouver boy learned he was one of four people in Washington with West Nile virus.

Taylor's August 2012 diagnosis made him Clark County's first case of West Nile virus in six years and only the second known case of the virus in the county.

Health officials believe Taylor contracted the virus while he was visiting his grandparents in Monroeville, Ala. He was only there three days, and nobody else in his family got sick.

"What's the chances, in the three days I was with my grandparents, I would get bit by the right mosquito and get infected?" Taylor, now 17, said Tuesday.

But that appears to be exactly what happened.

After returning to Vancouver, Taylor developed a rash. A week or so later, he was so ill he could barely move from the couch.

Taylor was sleeping 20 hours a day. He couldn't eat. He battled constant nausea and headaches. He was so dizzy he had to remain lying down. When he stood, he threw up. As a result, he lost about 25 pounds.

When the symptoms began, Taylor's dad, Brian Olson, took him to an urgent care center. The physician sent them to the hospital.

Emergency department staff thought Taylor had caught some sort of virus and took a blood sample for testing. Brian asked if his son could have contracted West Nile, given his trip to Alabama and a national West Nile outbreak, but the emergency staff dismissed the idea, Brian said.

The blood test results confirmed weeks later that Taylor did, in fact, have West Nile.

The risk of contracting West Nile virus is low, but anyone can become infected, according to health officials. Most people who are infected will not get sick. About one in five people infected will have mild symptoms such as fever, headache and body aches. About one in 150 people infected will have more severe symptoms.

In addition to the symptoms of West Nile, Taylor was diagnosed with Bell's palsy, which causes sudden weakness in the facial muscles. The exact reason Bell's palsy occurs is unknown, but it's often linked to exposure to a viral infection, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The left side of Taylor's face drooped as a result. He was prescribed steroids to help with the Bell's palsy, and anti-nausea medication to help with the most persistent West Nile symptom.

"The worst part is, there is no cure," Taylor said of the virus. "You just have to wait and let it get out of your system."

Taylor missed the first two weeks of his junior year at Columbia River High School, and in the months that followed, he missed one to two days of school a week -- more than a month of school total.

He had to get weekly blood tests to determine whether the virus -- which had reached his brain and spinal fluid -- was still in his system. And, as a result of the virus, he missed his entire football season and couldn't donate blood -- which he had done every 57 days -- until January.

It took two or three months before he felt like himself.

Taylor doesn't have any lingering effects from the West Nile virus. However, the muscles on the left side of his face, particularly around his mouth, feel weakened. He suspects that's from the Bell's palsy.

National outbreak

Last year's 48-state West Nile outbreak was one of the largest since the virus first appeared in the U.S. in 1999. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 5,674 cases of West Nile, resulting in 286 deaths, in 2012.

So far this year, the CDC has recorded six cases of West Nile, resulting in one death. Nonhuman infections have been recorded in 17 states, including Washington.

State health officials detected West Nile two weeks ago in Yakima County -- nearly a month earlier than in previous years. The virus was detected in two mosquito pools, which are groups of mosquitoes taken from a location and tested.

The virus has not been detected in any other animals or people elsewhere in the state.

Most years, West Nile does not pop up in Clark County.

Taylor's diagnosis was the first West Nile case in Clark County since 2006, when a man in his 50s contracted the virus while camping and hiking near the Skamania-Klickitat county line.

Those are the only known Clark County cases of West Nile since the virus first appeared in Washington in 2002.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_healthhttp://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com