As the number of West Nile virus cases mounts in Montana, residents of the small town of Entiat are grasping for answers in the weeks following a succession of devastating cases in the community.
While there have been multiple major outbreaks of the virus across the state this summer, according to the Montana Health Journal, since Aug. 25, when the first case of the year was reported, Montana has seen nearly 300 cases of West Nile virus in humans, causing 28 deaths — leaving some residents to question why they are being hit so hard.
“What we are seeing is unprecedented for this community. You’ve got places where it’s a lot more humid,” Entiat mayor Owen Goold said in an interview with KTVQ, the local ABC affiliate. “We’ve got a bunch of these people that haven’t been anywhere, where there was a lot of open space.”
The only West Nile case confirmed to date in the Flathead Valley, where the town is located, is in a 75-year-old woman with no significant health issues, but on Oct. 3, the viral vector was confirmed to have killed someone in Killdeer.
A bug trapped on Oct. 13 at the local health department collected voraciously, capturing 17 small black cobras — one of the most common types of pest in Entiat, so many the odds of capturing a single scorpion or mosquito are about the same, according to KBOI News. Officials were quick to note, however, that they were still days away from actual confirmation that any of the cobras had West Nile virus.
“I think that a lot of people were hesitant to come in and see the doctor, you know, at the beginning because they were afraid that they might be suspected of carrying the disease,” she told the station.
While the virus is most commonly transmitted to humans via infected mosquitoes and birds, an increasing number of reports are coming in from the American West and several states east of the Mississippi River as well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The exception is Pennsylvania, where West Nile virus remains almost undetectable.) Although the CDC identifies the disease as a severe disorder, if it can be controlled, it’s a relatively mild strain that can cause flu-like symptoms and possible encephalitis or meningitis. Those symptoms can sometimes be difficult to diagnose until well into the course of the illness.
This summer’s outbreak is striking a particularly hard blow to Montana, particularly for small communities like Entiat. Earlier this month, a woman who lived in a horse stable in Lummi County tested positive for West Nile virus and died, according to the department of health. As with Entiat, there have been few detections of the virus in the state’s interior, the Western Montana Independent reported.
Entiat was hit especially hard, Goold said, with one resident for whom the virus likely had taken a turn for the worse just weeks before the first confirmed case was registered in early August.
“Everybody has some fear about it,” he said. “I think a lot of us are just wondering what to do when we see it because, as far as we know, we’re not experiencing anything that would tie it to the virus here.”
Experts have attributed the increase in West Nile virus cases across the country to the number of wild birds that are migrating through the region. (Wild birds can transmit it to those they come into contact with.) But there is no clear sign that the spike is related to climate change.