OAKLEY -- Eight years ago, Laura Jaramillo woke up with the worst headache of her life; it hurt to even open her eyes.
She made it to the hospital, and she remembers giving her medical information to hospital staff. She woke up six weeks later, unable to walk, talk or eat.
It was then that Jaramillo learned her mysterious illness: West Nile virus, transmitted by mosquitoes.
"It took me a long time, because there was swelling in my brain, to understand, and I couldn't comprehend it -- how can that teeny little thing cause all this trouble?" the Oakley resident said.
The virus resulted in her contracting encephalitis and meningitis. Doctors were baffled over why this was happening to the otherwise seemingly healthy, then-50-year-old woman. She was moved to three different hospitals before one doctor decided to send her blood to be tested by a vector district.
Though the virus can incubate for up to 14 days. Jaramillo says she doesn't know exactly where or when she was bitten, but suspects it happened outside her Oakley home, past which a stream runs. Water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
After a lot of physical therapy, Jaramillo eventually learned how to talk, eat and walk again. Her Christmas present to her husband Carlos -- five months after she went into the hospital -- was walking across the living room to hug him; they both cried, she said. The virus made it hard for her to remember things and find the right words when speaking, and she said it took three years to feel "recovered." But she has permanently lost use of her right arm.
"You go from being a 50-year-old active person to almost an invalid. It was like someone chopped your legs out from under you," she said. "But I think for me the mental part of it was the hardest."
Jaramillo says that before she got West Nile, she was just like everyone else.
"I would hear about (West Nile) and it would go in one ear and right out the other," she said. "I never even thought it could happen to me."
Most who have the West Nile virus don't even know it, according to Deborah Bass with Contra Costa Mosquito & Vector Control District. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 5 people infected will develop a fever with other symptoms. Less than 1 percent of those infected develop the serious neurological illnesses Jaramillo experienced.
The county has between three and 11 human West Nile cases reported each year, Bass said. But using Centers For Disease Control data, there were likely 280 others in Contra Costa County last year who had the disease and thought they only had a bad flu, she said.
Correct diagnoses and reporting any possible cases is important because "West Nile is largely preventable," said Bass. "We don't want people to get sick. Our goal is to protect public health."
So far this year there have been 59 reported human cases of West Nile virus in the state, one of those in Contra Costa, according to state statistics. Four people have died in California from West Nile virus disease so far this year; in 2006, the disease killed two in Contra Costa.
The summer is the primary season for West Nile virus, and in the coming weeks it's likely the county will see more human cases, Bass said. The district has found mosquitoes breeding in spaces as small as a snail shell filled with water.
To prevent mosquito breeding, all standing water around homes should be dumped out -- this would make a big difference in the prevalence of mosquitoes, Bass said. And to prevent mosquito bites, people are encouraged to wear mosquito repellent, place screens on windows and fix screens that have holes. Bass hopes mosquito prevention will become as habitual as putting on a seat belt.
Prevention will not just help stop the spread of West Nile but also make the area uninhabitable for other species of mosquitoes that can carry other deadly diseases. The Asian tiger mosquito has been found in Southern California, and it can transmit dengue fever and yellow fever, Bass said.
The district does mosquito fogging when necessary, mostly in East County. There seem to be more instances of West Nile there because of a large bird population; also, it's typically hotter there than in other parts of the county, and heat enlivens mosquito breeding grounds.
Jaramillo shares her story, giving presentations to local groups to help spread the word about the dangers of mosquitoes and West Nile virus.
"I am a walking miracle," she said. "I just don't want anyone else to go through it. It is a real thing and it can happen to anyone."
For more information, go to www.contracostamosquito.com.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.