West Nile Virus: A Brief Overview

About twenty years ago, Americans first became familiar with a new type of disease – West Nile virus. In 2017, more than 2,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with this virus, resulting in nearly 150 deaths. Recent research suggests that new methods of treating West Nile could one day become available.

Signs of Trouble and Symptoms (or Lack Thereof)

While the above statistics might sound highly alarming, the majority of people who contract West Nile virus exhibit no discernible signs or symptoms of this disease. About 20 percent of West Nile sufferers will develop a mild set of symptoms known as West Nile fever. The telltale signs of this particular illness are listed below:

  • Fever
  • Body Aches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea

In extremely rare cases, those afflicted with West Nile virus experience a dangerous neurological infection, in which the the spinal cord membranes, brain membranes and the brain itself become inflamed. This inflammation can result in a multitude of serious symptoms:

  • Stiff Neck
  • High Fever
  • Confusion
  • Severe headache
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Stupor/coma
  • Partial paralysis

Getting Into the Body

The defining trait of West Nile Virus is the primary method of which it is spread. Specifically, West Nile virus is usually spread to humans via mosquito bites (mosquitoes usually acquire the disease after biting infected birds). Given this fact, it should not come as a surprise that West Nile cases crop up during the warm summer months, when mosquitoes swarm around in abundance.

When symptoms do occur, they do not appear immediately following a bite from an afflicted mosquito. Rather, it takes two to fourteen days for the signs of West Nile virus to physically manifest themselves. With the exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii, this virus has appeared in every US state, with the bulk of cases usually being reported from June through September.

The good news is that less than one percent of those with West Nile virus fall seriously ill. Those who are most vulnerable to West Nile virus tend to have a history of certain illnesses, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and kidney disease. Additionally, older adults and seniors face a greater threat of developing relatively serious symptoms.

A New Treatment for West Nile?

In late 2018, researchers from Vanderbilt University released a report detailing a possible new method for neutralizing West Nile virus. Specifically, the authors contend that this could be achieved through the use of a human monoclonal antibody

The report’s findings were based on serum and blood cell samples extracted from a small group of 13 adults. All of these individuals had contracted West Nile during a 2012 outbreak in the city of Dallas, Texas. After this initial step was complete, the study authors fused antibody-producing white blood cells to cancer cells. This unlikely combo led to creation of “factories” of monoclonal antibodies.

Of particular interest was an antibody known as WNV-86. When administered to laboratory mice, a single dose of WNV-86 was found to completely neutralize a lethal variant of West Nile virus.

James Crowe Jr., a study co-author and director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, stated in a university press release that “West Nile virus is still an important cause of brain infections in the U.S., and there is very little we can do to help these patients. It was exciting for us to use our antibody discovery technologies to find naturally occurring human antibodies that can prevent or treat the infection.”

While the Vanderbilt experiment did yield notable results in mice, further research is necessary before similar such tests can be conducted in humans. Though there are still hurdles to be cleared, the authors believe that their study could lay the groundwork for new treatment methods against West Nile virus.

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