MODESTO -- Erman Webb never really recovered from a severe bout with West Nile virus five years ago.
The 85-year-old needs support from a walker to get around his north Modesto home. His right hand shakes, and paralysis on the right side makes it impossible for him to lift his arm above his shoulder.
"I become very frustrated with my limitations," he said. "My doctor says, 'You'll never get rid of this.' "
More than 180 residents of Stanislaus County are known to have fallen ill from the West Nile virus since it first appeared here in 2004. Four of those people died. Doctors told Webb's wife that the acute illness would have been fatal if he had not been in good health.
Since 2007, the county has averaged 15 cases of West Nile per year, but it is expected to far eclipse that number this year. As of Friday, 12 cases had been reported and the risk of infection will continue through October.
The vast majority of people infected don't exhibit symptoms, or they get over the illness in six to eight weeks. But for some, the debilitating effects of West Nile last for more than a year or can be permanent.
Webb is proof the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus don't care whether the victim is rich or poor.
He formerly owned seven Food 4 Less supermarkets in California that together generated $135 million in annual sales, he said. He owned two other stores in Nevada and a pair in Utah before retiring 10 years ago.
Webb suspects he was bitten one evening in July 2007 as he and his great-granddaughter sat on the front porch, watching Bay Area-bound airliners cross the sky over Modesto.
He began feeling the fatigue about a week later, then the illness struck hard when he and his wife, Mary, ventured to Medford, Ore., to pick up a new motor home. The troubling body aches began as they drove to an RV rally in Oregon.
"The next morning, I could not get out of the chair to take one step," he said. The onset of tremors made him "shake like a leaf. I couldn't control it."
An ambulance took Webb to the small hospital in Redmond, which transferred him to a better-equipped medical center in Bend. During his more than two-week stay in Bend, doctors struggled to understand his symptoms of headache, extreme muscle weakness, tremors and total loss of balance.
"They tested me for stroke, (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease), heart problems and everything else," he recalls. All tests were negative.
A doctor finally quizzed Mary about her husband's background and activities back home. Mary furnished the information and mentioned that West Nile virus was active in Stanislaus County. A subsequent test was positive for West Nile.
Upon his release from the hospital, Webb was wheeled to the motor home. His son, who had arrived from California, drove the couple home.
Health officials have said older people and those with chronic conditions are more susceptible to the virus. Webb said he has diabetes that is controlled with medication.
Several weeks of exercise at Vintage Faire Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Modesto restored some of his strength, enabling Webb to stand again. But the effects on his nervous system have not gone away.
A study published in 2006 suggested that long-term symptoms are fairly common among people sickened by different forms of West Nile illness. Of 49 patients tested a year after diagnosis, almost half of them complained of lingering symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, problems with memory, depression and tremors.
Falls make life difficult
Webb tries to maintain an active life. He leaves the walker behind and steadies himself with a shopping cart when he's in his familiar surroundings in the grocery store. But his lack of balance puts him at risk of falling.
"I shuffle along. I have fallen 13 times and have broken my collarbone," he said.
Although anti-viral drugs sometimes are given to hospitalized patients, Webb said doctors never have suggested even an experimental treatment for the long-term symptoms.
He remains upbeat, however, and is thankful that surviving the crisis gave him more time with Mary, his partner for 58 years.
"There is no pain, that is one thing I am grateful for. But it's hard to live with the restrictions on what I can do," he said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.