First West Nile virus death of the year reported in California, health officials say

An Imperial County, California, man died from West Nile virus complications earlier this month, according to local public health officials.

The fatality is California’s first from the mosquito-borne illness in 2019, the Desert Sun reports. The California state West Nile virus monitoring website shows no other reported deaths this year.

Doree Grindell of San Diego identified her father, 74-year-old Robert Mears of Bombay Beach, as the man who died of the virus on July 4 at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, according to the newspaper.

“It’s really hard,” Grindell said, according to the Sun. “It’s devastating that a mosquito took away an amazing man.”

The man’s symptoms began to appear in June, though he may have been exposed to the virus as early as May, the Imperial County Public Department said in a news release confirming the man’s death on Tuesday. Officials said the man “had a history of health complications” and was treated at a local hospital until doctors transferred him out of the county.

But because the man had traveled to other parts of Southern California before coming down with West Nile virus, health officials said it is not known where he was infected.

“Family members reported that the individual did not use insect repellent when spending time outdoors and had reported mosquito bites,” health officials said.

The state health department warned in late June that West Nile virus activity was on the rise.

State Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith said in a statement that “it is important to take every possible precaution to protect against mosquito bites.”

State officials said “late-spring rains have contributed to standing water, which serves as a breeding source for mosquitoes that can spread (the virus). Hot temperatures also contribute to increasing numbers of breeding mosquitoes and an increased risk of virus transmission to humans.”

Officials said the risk of disease grows as the summer goes on.

There were 217 reported cases and 11 deaths from West Nile virus in California last year, according to state health officials. And since the virus arrived in the state in 2003, more than 6,000 people have reported infections and 303 have died in California.

Imperial County officials encouraged those who spend time outdoors to protect themselves and rid their environment of standing water where mosquitoes breed.

“This local death serves as a reminder to our community of the importance of taking precautions against mosquito bites,” Dr. Stephen Munday, Health Officer for Imperial County, said in a statement. “We urge everyone to take simple steps to eliminate mosquito breeding sources around their homes to protect themselves, their loved ones, and communities.”

Symptoms of the virus include nausea, seizures, vomiting and fever when the disease becomes severe, according to health officials — though most infected with the virus never come down with symptoms at all.

“Others will have only mild symptoms, such as fever, headache and body aches,” Imperial County health officials said, while cautioning that the virus “can be severe in the elderly and individuals with lowered compromised immune systems.”

Mosquitoes get infected with the virus after feeding on birds that are carrying it, health officials said.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.