Maladies Target Vineyard Workers

Tropical viruses worry Washington wine industry, as grower Paul Champoux recovers

by Peter Mitham
West Nile virus vineyards
Prosser, Wash. -- Northwest grapegrowers are keeping a close eye on pests this season, but vines and grapes aren’t the targets of the bugs -- the growers themselves are at risk.

The dangers are well known to Paul Champoux, who grows 180 acres of sought-after grapes at Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA south of Prosser, Wash. West Nile Virus hit Champoux hard last July, incapacitating him within three days of noticing the first symptoms. Originally identified in Uganda’s West Nile District in 1937, the mosquito-borne virus appeared in New York state in 1999 and has since spread across North America.

Champoux doesn’t remember being bitten by a mosquito in the two weeks prior to being rushed to the hospital by ambulance in mid-July, but the months since have been unforgettable. He was hospitalized for seven weeks, first in Portland, Ore., then Kennewick, Wash., returning home Sept. 4 for a steady course of physical therapy aimed at rehabilitation.

Speaking with Wines & Vines yesterday, Champoux said he’s recovered 90% of the strength in his arms and 65% of his legs’ strength thanks to daily exercise and the support of his wife Judy. “She’s my hero; we’ve been partnering on our rehab, and coming back from this,” he said.

Virtually paralyzed by the virus during last year’s harvest, he nevertheless managed to direct some activities from his house, which overlooks his vineyard. As he’s become stronger, he’s started venturing in an electric wheelchair to his office, and with Judy’s help he’s ventured in his pick-up into the vineyard to check on the vines.

While the illness knocked Champoux for a loop, it hasn’t stopped him. Rather, following his encounter with the virus, he’s become an advocate for greater awareness of the risks faced by vineyard workers. Talk about the disease has become a feature of worker training, and DEET-based insect repellant is provided to vineyard workers.

“I don’t make them wear it, but I make it available to them so they can wear it, and we talk about (West Nile),” Champoux said. “It’s part of our safety program. I didn’t do that before this. I didn’t really think about mosquitoes.”

He also talks to other growers about the importance of eliminating standing water where mosquitoes may breed -- places such as buckets, tires, birdbaths, ponds and roof gutters. The fewer mosquitoes there are, the less chance for one of the bugs to bite an infected bird and then a human. (Common carriers of the virus include corvids -- crows, ravens, magpies and jays. Surveillance efforts for West Nile often include testing dead crows; the Washington State Department of Health encourages the reporting of dead birds.)

The potential reduction of vector control measures in Washington state concerns Champoux, and he encouraged growers to speak in defense of programs aimed at limiting mosquito populations. Planned cuts to West Nile funding in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley were recently reversed, demonstrating that popular demand can successfully ensure ongoing protection.

“We’re so complacent around here it seems,” Champoux said of the situation in Eastern Washington, even though of the 38 cases in the state last year, 30 were in Benton and Yakima counties. “If it doubles or triples again, then maybe people will start paying more attention.”

Tropical fungus invades West Coast
Oregon registered just 12 human cases of West Nile infections last year, down from a peak of 73 in 2006, but it’s facing another scourge that’s crept down the coast from Canada. Cryptococcus gattii, an air-borne fungus harbored in trees but most commonly found in soil, was discovered the same year as West Nile Virus debuted in North America, appearing on Vancouver Island off British Columbia’s west coast. A tropical disease, the temperate West Coast climate has seen it spread first into Washington and then, in 2004, into Oregon.

The incubation period for C. gattii infections is long, with symptoms manifesting two to 12 months after exposure, although the disease most commonly appears after six to seven months. Symptoms include a range of common phenomenon, including headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain and sensitivity to light. Most cases respond to pharmaceutical treatment, with fatalities running at less than 5%.

Emilio DeBess, a public health veterinarian with the Oregon Department of Human Services, said 39 cases of human C. gattii infections have been reported since 2007. “It’s a rare disease,” DeBess told Wines & Vines. DeBess said vineyard workers aren’t at increased risk of infection, and no special precautions are recommended for protection against C. gattii infection, which unlike West Nile is not a reportable disease in Oregon.

West Nile watch
According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 80% of all people infected with West Nile virus will show no symptoms at all and less than 1% -- about one in 150 people -- will develop the severe forms of the disease known clinically as West Nile encephalitis and West Nile meningitis. The symptoms may range from headache and high fever to disorientation and -- in the most severe cases -- muscle weakness, convulsions, paralysis and coma. “These symptoms may last several weeks, and neurological effects may be permanent,” the Centers for Disease Control remark.

One-fifth of people will experience West Nile fever, a milder illness that may last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Symptoms include fever, body aches and headaches; nausea, vomiting, and swollen lymph glands or rash on the chest, stomach and back.

Monitoring programs in most jurisdictions advise citizens to be on the lookout for an uptick in the number of dead birds, especially crows, which may indicate the presence of West Nile in the local environment.

More From Washington:
Wine Hall of Fame nominations close June 1
Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame invites nominations of candidates for induction into the Hall of Fame this coming August. The Hall of Fame honors industry members who have made a legendary-level contributions or commitments to the Washington wine industry. Past inductees include Stan Clarke, a 30-year industry veteran, and John Anderson, a visionary and mentor who believed Washington would compete globally based on premium quality grapes.

To be eligible, candidates must be Washington state residents for at least 25 years and also have been involved in the wine industry for 25 years. A selection committee, including representatives from each of the state’s viticultural regions, will review and rate nominees on criteria including impact on the wine industry; contributions to the community; and their historical and lasting significance for future generations.

A gala honoring the chosen nominee will be held at WSU-IAREC in Prosser on Aug. 28. A nomination form and detailed criteria are available from the Walter Clore Center.

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