CHICAGO -- Bob Meisenheimer liked to sit in his back yard with friends on sultry summer nights, wearing a T-shirt and trying to solve the world's problems. The one that killed him -- West Nile virus -- has authorities scrambling for answers.
The mosquito-borne illness has hit Illinois harder than any other state this summer, with 399 cases so far, including 21 deaths. That is far worse than even hot, humid and swampy Louisiana, which has had 11 deaths.
The outbreak here is the deadliest in the nation since West Nile virus was first discovered in this country in New York City in 1999.
Experts are uncertain why the problem is so bad here, but their theories include bird migration patterns, a heavy concentration of mosquito-infested cemeteries, and Illinois residents' summertime habits.
"You've got a short warm season and everybody loves to be outside. To be told to cover up and wear repellent when you go outside, you're kind of messing up the party," said Kitty Loewy of the Cook County Public Health Department.
Bret Meisenheimer thinks that may explain his 76-year-old father's death Sept. 5 from West Nile encephalitis, or brain swelling. A World War II veteran and retired bricklayer, Bob Meisenheimer had battled leukemia but was feeling pretty good until he developed flu-like symptoms about three weeks ago.
His son figures Meisenheimer got bitten during his nightly routine, sitting out on the picnic table in Bethalto, north of St. Louis.
"I don't think he ever thought a mosquito would get to him," Bret Meisenheimer said of his father.
He doubts his dad wore insect repellent or protective clothing, which along with avoiding being outside at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active are among precautions state officials have recommended.
While Illinoisans may not have curtailed summertime fun, many are worried, especially in Chicago's hard-hit suburbs.
"You go to a block party and a soccer game, and it's on everybody's minds," said Jay Terry, a health director in Evanston, where 26 people have been infected. "We had a block party two weeks ago and there was a table set up just for insect repellent."
As of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 1,500 cases nationwide, including 71 deaths. That does not include the three deaths reported Tuesday in Illinois.
The Illinois victims have ranged from a 3-month-old baby girl from the Chicago area who survived a severe case to a 92-year-old suburban woman who did not. Most people bitten by an infected mosquito do not become ill, and most of those who do get sick have only mild symptoms.
One reason for the outbreak may be that Illinois is on a major bird migration route, the Mississippi Flyway. Birds can spread the disease.
In Cook County alone, which includes Chicago, there have been about 300 cases, including 15 deaths. And the Chicago-area geography includes lots of forest preserves and marshes, which are better mosquito breeding grounds than, say, the concrete jungles of New York, said Dr. Robert Craven of the CDC.
Entomologist Khian Liem of the South Cook County Mosquito Abatement District noted that the entire Chicago area is a former swamp, and that the southern suburbs have a high concentration of cemeteries, which are an ideal mosquito breeding ground. Mourners continually bring in flower containers, which collect rainwater, in which mosquitoes breed.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has temporarily banned flowers from gravesites at Roman Catholic cemeteries.
Linn Haramis, an entomologist with the state Health Department, said Illinois' mild winter this year, followed by a hot and dry summer, was ideal for the common house mosquitoes that spread the virus.
As fall and cooler temperatures approach, mosquito activity is expected to decrease.
On the Net:
Illinois Public Health Dept.: http://www.idph.state.il.us
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