What Cancer Patients Need to Know About West Nile Virus


If you live in North Texas, chances are that you’ve already heart of the West Nile Virus. As of August 28, 2012, Federal health officials say a total of 1,590 human cases of West Nile Virus disease have been reported to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) including 65 deaths.

The number of cases reported is the highest number of West Nile virus disease cases reported to CDC since West Nile virus was first detected in the United States in 1999. Of these, 56 percent were classified as neuroinvasive disease (such as meningitis or encephalitis) and 44 percent were classified as non-neuroinvasive disease. Over 45 percent of all cases have been reported from the Lonestar State.

The CDC points out that like many other infectious diseases, children, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV or cancer, may face a greater risk. But what exactly does that mean for cancer patients specifically?”

After a pretty thorough Google search, we discovered there wasn’t much information out there on the topic. So we sent our questions to Sashidhar Reddy, M.D., an oncologist on staff at Baylor Medical Center at Garland. Here are his answers and some good advice for cancer patients concerned about  the West Nile Virus.

Q:  We’ve heard that the most at-risk are elderly individuals and those with compromised immune systems, which can include patients who have cancer. How serious is that risk?

I think the risk is real for any person that may be immune-compromised. Cancer patients getting chemo generally have suppressed immune states so they are even more vulnerable.

Q:  Is the recent threat of West Nile any different for people with cancer who are currently going through treatment?

Cancer patients should be more cautious since they may be more susceptible, especially patients who have a low White blood cell count.

Q:  If a cancer patient contracts West Nile Virus, could it affect or interfere with treatment?

Things could be delayed. A person must have some stamina to tolerate chemo. If you are sick for any reason (West Nile or not) your doctor may choose to delay treatment to improve success rates in the long-run.

Q:  Since West Nile is transmitted by mosquitoes and not person to person, what kind of precautions should we take to protect ourselves?

My two best pieces of advice are to stay indoors during evenings and wear long sleeve shirts and pants. Beyond that follow guidelines from the CDC. Also, make sure to have someone check and clear standing water from around perimeter of your home, especially if you are unable to physically do it yourself.

Q:  Can cancer patients use strong chemicals found in some insect repellents like DEET? Are there any precautions they should stay away from?

DEET can be harsh on the skin. Often cancer patients are older and their skin is more sensitive. I’d be wary of using DEET but don’t know of any scientific data that supports or negates it.

Q:  Are there any special precautions taken for patients who contract West Nile and are also fighting cancer?

Treatment for the West Nile Virus is mostly supportive, and cancer patients may need more support than the general person.

Q:  Are cancer patients more susceptible to contracting the neurological form of the disease?

That’s difficult to say, but I would think any effect would likely be more significant in a cancer patient getting treatment.

Q:  For those in the cancer community who are reading this, what should they be looking for as far as symptoms go? At what point should they seek medical help?

People typically develop symptoms between 3 and 14 days after they are bitten by the infected mosquito. A cancer patient should contact their doctor if they have flu-like symptoms or are simply feeling worse than usual.

If any of the symptoms listed by the CDC present then you should definitely see your doctor:

  • fever
  • headache
  • tiredness
  • body aches occasionally with a skin rash (on the trunk of the body)
  • swollen lymph glands

Q:  Many of the symptoms listed on the CDC website sound similar to common side effects of some cancer treatments. If a cancer patient is experiencing these, should they ask their physician to test them for the virus? Or should they just treat the symptoms as they would any other virus like the cold or flu?

If a cancer patient believes they were exposed, they should be tested. The timing of symptoms related to cancer treatment can often have a pattern in some patients. If something occurs outside this pattern, other causes such as the West Nile Virus should be identified and/or ruled out. But this is not a good general rule, since treatment related problems can also be unpredictable in some patients.

Q:  Is there any treatment available for West Nile? Anything similar to flu treatments like Tamiflu?

There are some experimental drugs being tested, but in most cases those probably wouldn’t be advised for patients who are also fighting cancer. Treatment for West Nile Virus is mostly supportive, which means the patient will need help fighting the disease if severe. So make sure to tell your doctor sooner than later if you are experiencing anything that concerns you.

Q:  What is your best advice for anyone who may be concerned?

The CDC is a good place for info. Also, talking with your doctor about any new symptoms you may be experiencing (whether or not they are related to your treatment) is very important. 

About the author

Jennifer McDowell
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Jennifer is a public relations professional who assists the Baylor Scott & White Health team on numerous projects. Born in Tennessee, she came to the “Big D” by way of SMU. Prior to this gig, she was the associate producer of an award-winning syndicated medical news segment.

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What Cancer Patients Need to Know About West Nile Virus