HONEYVILLE, Box Elder County — John Max Baugh was a simple cowboy, a northern Utah rancher who above all was a family man.
Baugh, known to most as "Rasty," died Thursday at Ogden Regional Medical Center from complications of West Nile virus. He was 84.
Baugh's death is the first in Utah related to the virus in 2012, following four confirmed cases in the state.
The farmer and cattle rancher lived in the Harper Ward area in unincorporated Box Elder County between Brigham City and Honeyville.
Baugh and his late wife, Leah, were married for more than 60 years and together raised six children.
"They made a commitment to each other that, no matter what, they would be together forever, and they would provide that legacy for us kids. And they did," David Baugh, the couple's youngest child.
Rasty Baugh had a hard time sleeping after Leah passed away last year, the son said. He spent many nights sitting on his porch in the moonlight, feeding the cats that would hang around his farm.
Family members suspect it was on one of those late nights that he was bitten by a mosquito carrying West Nile virus. He had been suffering from flu-like symptoms, David Baugh said.
"He just kind of didn't feel real well," he said.
Though he was 84, Rasty Baugh was in good heath, his son said. The illness hit a few weeks ago, he said, and within a few days, the man's speech had become incoherent.
Doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with Rasty, and he was unconscious for more than a week.
"The day he passed away, they diagnosed him with West Nile virus," David Baugh said.
Though their father's death came suddenly, David Baugh said he and his siblings are finding comfort in their belief that their parents will now be together to celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary later this month.
"We're grateful for the legacy that he's left for us, for what we learned from him, working side by side on the farm," he said.
Lloyd Berentzen, executive director of the Bear River Health Department, said Rasty Baugh's death also serves as a reminder of the seriousness of West Nile virus.
Parts of Box Elder County haven't yet had a "hard freeze," which keeps the risk of the illness alive, Berentzen said.
Individuals are encouraged to protect themselves by wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants while outdoors, especially from dusk until dawn, using insect repellent with DEET, and removing standing water from around their homes, where mosquitoes may breed, Berentzen said.
Two cases of the virus have been confirmed in Box Elder County, including the death last week, and two other human cases have been confirmed in Summit and Weber counties.
In contrast, the neighboring state of Colorado has reported 106 cases and three deaths this year. Texas has the highest number of reports of the illness, including 1,438 cases and 54 deaths.
Mosquitoes in Box Elder, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Washington counties have tested positive for West Nile virus so far this year. A single case in chickens was reported in Cache County and in horses in Box Elder County, according to Utah Department of Health data. The season typically peaks between early September and the end of October.
Last year, three cases were reported throughout Utah and none resulted in death.
A total of 3,969 cases and 163 deaths have been reported to the CDC this year.
West Nile virus was first diagnosed in Uganda in 1937, but cases were not confirmed in the United States until 1999. Experts believe cases across the country have been worse this year because of the hot, dry weather, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency has said this year's numbers are the worst since outbreaks in 2002 and 2003, when more than 3,000 cases were experienced throughout the country.
As of Oct. 2, the virus had been detected in people, birds or mosquitoes in 48 states, but the CDC reports that almost 70 percent of the cases in the U.S. have been reported from eight states — Texas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota, Michigan, Oklahoma and Illinois.Comment on this story
Utah Department of Health epidemiologist JoDee Baker said that while Utah has a low case count, it shouldn't be taken lightly.
"Both mosquitoes and weather can play a role in how large an outbreak we see," she said.
Baker said mosquito abatement districts throughout the state continue to work diligently to control the mosquito population, but they can only do so much.
The danger of infection decreases after the ground freezes, as mosquitoes cannot survive freezing temperatures.