West Nile virus researcher believes vaccine should be available

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Steve Byerly

While the number of people infected with West Nile virus continues to increase in Mississippi and elsewhere, prospects for a vaccine being developed won’t be on the horizon until it is “an uncontrollable epidemic” in the nation, says Jackson scientist Dr. A. Arturo Leis.

Leis is a senior scientist at the Center for Neuroscience and Neurological Recovery at Methodist Rehabilitation Center and clinical professor of neurology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

A longtime researcher of West Nile, Leis reported and confirmed in 2002 with Dr. Dobrivoje Stokic a link between the virus and paralysis. After talking about a vaccine for years, Leis said he stopped about 10 years ago.

“When it happens, I’ll be happy. Should it have happened already? Yes. Would it have happened if it affected more people and was deemed more important? Yes.”

Also: Mississippi reports 7 new West Nile virus cases

Leis said he understands the federal government has to prioritize what it believes is most important with its limited funds. 

West Nile has not demanded attention requiring immediate reaction because 80 percent of people exposed to the virus never have any symptoms. The immune system is doing its job in the majority of people.

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Leis said of 100 people exposed to the virus, 20 percent will develop symptoms such as a summer flu with headaches, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, rash and lymph nodes swelling.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, “people with milder symptoms typically recover on their own, although some symptoms may last for several weeks.”

Such symptoms could include unexplained weakness and movement disorders. Leis said the symptoms could worsen into a neuroinvasive disease, such as meningitis, encephalitis and neurotropic viruses. 

He said more emphasis and scientific focus should be placed on why clinical symptoms develop.. 

Leis said West Nile is a “largely a preventable disease.” He emphasized the importance of removing standing water.

“A new generation of mosquitoes can develop in any container holding standing water in four days,” Leis said.

Birds are reservoir hosts for the virus, Leis said. Mosquitoes bite the birds, get the disease, then bite humans, spreading the virus. 

While West Nile is most often spread by mosquitos, it can be spread from mother to fetus, improper cleaning of machinery, and organ and blood donations.

More: First West Nile virus case in Mississippi for 2017 reported

Mississippi has 16 confirmed cases of West Nile Virus for 2017, according to the state Department of Health. Leis said the virus’ peak season is mid-July through October.

Leis said he and other researchers have seen lingering effects among West Nile survivors, which they do not understand yet.

“We realized that a lot of patients were developing new neurological deficits long after the virus had been eradicated from the body,” Leis said.

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He said he has been working since 2005 to figure out why.

“Growing evidence is that West Nile virus causes an autoimmune proinflammatory state,” Leis said. “We think this proinflammatory state is what causes or contributes to the lingering protracted, recurrent symptoms that we see in too many survivors.”

Led by Leis and sponsored by Methodist Rehabilitation Center, a support group for those diagnosed with West Nile and their caretakers was formed in 2002. From this support group with 20 to 40 attendees, Mosquito Illness Alliance was formed in 2015, receiving funding from the Washington, D.C.-based Patient Centered Outcome Research Institute. 

The support group, which meets eight times a year, will launch a live network this year to reach other patients who do not have access to a support group in their area.

“We want physicians to know, that although there is no treatment for West Nile, it’s only supportive care, there are some resources out there for these patients,” said Sharon Sims, president and project lead of MIA.

On the positive side, Leis said there is every indication survivors have a lifelong immunity against the virus because of their adaptive immune response.

Leis said it’s important for doctors to be informed about West Nile so they can identify the virus. He said West Nile cases are under-reported and under-recognized.

“It is important for doctors to know that West Nile virus antibody tests should be ordered in any patient who presents with unexplained neurological symptoms during the summer months,” Leis said.

Contact Emmalyne Kwasny at 601-961-7067 or ekwasny@jackson.gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter.

Mosquito Illness Alliance’s objectives:

  • Build a network of MIA patients, caregivers and medical care providers.

  • Be a collective voice for MIA patients and caregivers.

  • Provide support and education of patients, survivors and caregivers.

  • Increase research opportunities for MIA patients and caregivers through collaboration with researchers and other stakeholders; specifically to advocate for, plan, and conduct comparative effectiveness research.

  • Promote awareness for MIA in terms of prevention, symptoms, diagnosis and resulting quality-of-life-issues.

 

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