Study Indicates West Nile Virus May Be Underdiagnosed In Houston Region

A CDC journal on infectious diseases has published the research this month.


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A Harris County Public Health worker shows mosquitos found in one of the traps deployed in the city
A Harris County Public Health worker shows mosquitos found in one of the traps deployed in the city.

The Zika virus has received a lot of attention in the past few months, but there is new research about another mosquito-borne virus which is prevalent in Texas that concludes it is underdiagnosed.

Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, a professor of Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School, is one of the authors of a study on West Nile virus released this month in a journal about infectious diseases published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The research, which started in January of 2005 and concluded in December of 2010, focused on 751 (567 adults and 184 children) patients that were examined for meningitis and encephalitis at nine hospitals located in the Houston region.

The illnesses for which they were seen are important because they can be caused by West Nile.

The doctors treating the patients only ordered tests for this specific virus for 37 percent of them.

Hasbun has a theory about why it happened.

"Most likely it’s because doctors, when they see patients in the hospital with meningitis, they’re more concerned about a bacterial cause that has treatment, versus West Nile, where there’s no treatment," Hasbun said.

Despite not having a treatment for the virus, Hasbun says it would be useful for physicians to know whether their patients suffer from it.

Diagnosing West Nile is important because it can cause neurological problems, including paralysis of extremities and stroke-like symptoms.

In the worst case scenario, the virus can even be fatal, mostly for elderly people and those with a weak immune system.

"This study is giving us a hint that West Nile is being underdiagnosed because only a third of the cases are being tested, so the epidemic is actually most likely much higher than what is being recorded," Hasbun said.

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Public Health Department for Harris County, thinks this research is interesting because better information about how many people have West Nile virus and where they live would help public health officials work more efficiently by better targeting "our mosquito surveillance efforts and our testing efforts."

Hasbun says another lesson learned from the research is that it is more effective to test for West Nile between June and October, which is the season when the virus is most prevalent.

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