by Lynn Landes
What to do about West Nile? Don't do anything. It has the smell of a manufactured crisis. The news on West Nile is a disturbing combination of hype, confusion, distortion, and omission. Take a look at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website for, "West Nile Virus Update - Current Case Count," and you'll see a startling variation in the incidence of West Nile infections and fatalities from state to state - and even within the same region. It makes me wonder.
On a daily basis TV reporters raise the alarm and breathlessly announce new cases of West Nile, but it's hard to tell if they're talking about fatalities or infections.
We're told that both children and the elderly are most at risk, when in fact children are the least at risk for the disease, according to the CDC, but most at risk for the toxic effects of pesticides and mosquito repellents.
Both the CDC and state public health agencies give out general information about the number of victims, but not specific data on individual victims that may shed light on the medical reality of this so-called crisis.
The virus is characterized as new and dangerous, when it's not significantly different from viruses that have been in the United States for decades.
West Nile may be a nasty experience for a very few, fatal for an exceedingly rare number, but as diseases go...it's no big deal. There are about 40 different types of mosquitoes that carry viruses that could cause encephalitis. They're common in many parts of the U.S. and breed in places like tire dumps.
So what's unique about West Nile? Not much, according to Dr. Raoult Ratard of the Louisiana Department of Health. He says that, as it affects humans, West Nile is almost indistinguishable from the St. Louis virus, which has been in the U.S. since 1933. Dr. Ratard says that there's no difference between the two viruses regarding their symptoms or rates of infection. Less than 1% of persons infected with the West Nile or St. Louis virus will develop severe illness. On average, St. Louis causes 128 people to be hospitalized every year, although in 1964 that figure went as high as 4,478 cases. In fact, the mortality rate for the St. Louis virus is said to be slightly higher than that for West Nile.
The St. Louis virus is considered a "permanent resident" of Florida, according to the University of Florida's Cooperative Extension Service. On their website the Extension Service even questions the effectiveness of spraying pesticides, noting that by the time an outbreak has occurred it's already too late. And I doubt anyone sprays pesticides for West Nile in Europe, Africa, Western Asia, or the Middle East where it's common.
Now that's interesting. Florida is a breeding ground for the St. Louis virus and filled to the gills with the elderly, yet only one person has been infected with West Nile according to the CDC, while Louisiana has 205, Mississippi 91, and Illinois 79. Could Florida residents have developed a resistance to both St. Louis and West Nile virus? Or to mosquitoes in general? Or is something else going on?
I've been very curious about the alleged victims of West Nile. So I called the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for more information.
Incredibly, the CDC press office claims that they don't have information on the exact ages or medical conditions of the alleged fatalities of West Nile, and only the 'mean' age for cases of infection - 51 years old. And that doesn't really jive with press reports that describe victims of infection or fatalities as usually over 70 years of age. The CDC says that reporters have managed to get some details on the victims, but not from the CDC.
Call me dumb, but not stupid. How did the CDC get the mean age of those who got infected if they don't have the individual ages? There aren't enough cases of West Nile in many states to establish their own mean. How can the CDC make policy and state funding decisions for West Nile if they don't have the basic facts on its so-called victims? How can they inform, alert, and alarm the public if they're operating in an information vacuum?
CDC press office told me that I would have to contact the individual state public health agencies for more information. So I called Louisiana and New York, but no luck. They also were not releasing the information I sought.
It seems I'm not alone in my failure. According to the No Spray Coalition, New York City claimed 7 fatalities to West Nile in 1999, "Yet to date none of the names or medical histories of the deceased have been released... Independent research indicates that all 7 were over 75, one had a serious heart condition, two had cancer (and heavy chemotherapy), and all had bad immune systems. No death was histologically connected with WNV as the cause of death."
Why not release victim information? Could it be that if the public were to understand that the so-called victims really had serious underlying medical conditions, that it would put an end to the panic and an end to the pesticide spraying?
Pardon me for being suspicious, but in my mind it's not surprising that states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Illinois are claiming some of the highest rates for West Nile. They've had a long love affair with the chemical industry. That cozy relationship could contribute to the high number of victims in any number of troubling ways.
West Nile is a virus that we will learn to live with and should refuse to get excited about. What's alarming is a pesticide industry that does more harm than good, a public health service that withholds the facts, and a press corps that seems incapable of asking the tough questions.
Lynn Landes is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental issues. She's been a radio show host and a regular commentator for a BBC radio program. Lynn writes a weekly column which is published on her website EcoTalk.org and reports environmental news for DUTV in Philadelphia, PA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org