Family of West Covina Woman Killed by West Nile Virus Speak Out After Infection Claims 6 Lives in California This Year

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Just as Ventura County health officials warned of mosquitoes found infected with West Nile Virus on Wednesday, a family a county away in West Covina spoke out about the illness killing one of their own.

Julie Shepherd, 84, was a lively grandmother who loved aerobics and Tai Chi before she became infected with West Nile Virus, her daughter told KTLA. She was hospitalized for two weeks, never even realizing she was bitten by a virus-laden mosquito, before she died just two days ago.

Julie Shepherd appears in a photo her family provided to KTLA.
Julie Shepherd appears in a photo her family provided to KTLA.

"It was so heartbreaking that nobody should have to go through that," her daughter, Suzi Howe, said.

West Nile Virus is an infection carried by mosquitos and birds that does not cause illness in most people infected. There is no vaccine to protect against it.

However, a small number of those infected will develop symptoms such as "fever, headache, rash, muscle weakness, and nausea and vomiting," Los Angeles County health officials say, and some may even experience serious neurological symptoms such as "limb paralysis, tremors, and altered mental status."

In Shepherd's case, the virus gave her symptoms that looked more like a stroke. That's what doctors first diagnosed her with, when she appeared partially paralyzed with her only other symptom being fatigue.

Howe said her mother's condition rapidly deteriorated, as she suffered severe neurological issues that led to her death.

On Wednesday, Ventura County health officials issued a statement saying mosquitoes collected in Simi Valley earlier this month tested positive for the virus. But it's hardly the virus' first appearance in Southern California or other parts of the state.

California saw 35 new human cases of the virus just last week alone, with 19 of those cases in L.A. County alone, according to the state website for the virus.

Just this year, at least six people have died in California due to West Nile Virus, according to the state health department. Three died in Los Angeles County, along with one person in Kern County, one in Long Beach and one in San Bernardino.

"I mean, you think about your mom having a stroke, a heart attack, any of those things — not a bug bite. Not a mosquito bite that's gonna take her down," Howe said.

To avoid contracting the virus, Ventura County health officials advise eliminating standing water from one's home, making sure all doors and windows have tight-fitting screens, and wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts along with insect repellant.

They also suggested limiting one's activity "especially at dawn and dusk."

As the numbers show, the West Nile Virus has quite a presence in the state. And this year has been pretty much the same as in recent years, along with the usual spike during the summer months.

"Usually by this time of the year, we find West Nile positive mosquitoes throughout the district," said Jason Farned of the San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District.

"[In] all of the cities, we found that the virus is present — which is pretty consistent every year," he said.

With the virus possibly lurking in everyday life, the son-in-law of Shepherd said it's crucial people are aware and take the necessary precautions.

"Just tell people across California that this is an epidemic going on that they probably don't even know about," Nick Howe said.

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