Is West Nile for real?

July 1, 1993

Is West Nile for real?

By Joe Baker, Senior Editor

We have our choice of hysterics these days; Iraq or West Nile Virus. Every day radio and television provide breathless reports of the latest numbers of mosquito bite victims.

Doesn’t this all seem just a little bit suspect? It’s a combination of hype, distortion, confusion and omission. The national Centers for Disease Control and the state health agencies put out general information on the victims, but no specifics on individual victims that might throw some light on this so-called crisis.

We’re told children and the elderly are most at risk, but the CDC says children are the least at risk and in fact, are more at risk from pesticides and mosquito repellents with their toxic effects.

West Nile Virus is reported as new and dangerous, but is it? It is not greatly different from many other viruses that have been common in this country for decades.

West Nile can be nasty for a few and fatal for even fewer, but over all it’s no big deal. Dr. Raoult Ratard of the Louisiana Department of Health, says that West Nile is nearly indistinguishable from the St. Louis virus, which has been here since the 1930s. There’s no difference in symptoms or infection rates.

Dr. Ratard said less than one percent of those infected with either virus will develop serious illness. St. Louis virus, on average, hospitalizes 128 people a year. In 1964 that figure hit 4,478 cases. The mortality rate is claimed to be slightly higher than for West Nile virus.

In Florida they consider the state a breeding ground for the St. Louis virus. Florida is filled with elderly residents but they don’t have one case of West Nile virus while Louisiana has 205, Mississippi has 91 and Illinois has at least 79.

Are Floridians resistant to West Nile? Or to mosquitoes? What’s going on?

The Centers for Disease Control told Lynn Landes, a freelance environmental reporter, it has no information on the exact ages or medical conditions of alleged West Nile fatalities and has only the ‘mean’ age for infection cases—51 years old. News reports generally describe infection or fatality victims as more than 70 years old.

“Call me dumb, but not stupid,” Landes said. “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?”

The No Spray Coalition in New York City said that city claimed seven deaths from West Nile in 1999 but “Independent research indicates that all seven 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 West Nile Virus as the cause of death.”

There is a reason that government agencies are not releasing specific information about these cases. Adequate information about the virus and the “victims’ might well end the panic and the spraying programs.

Landes said she’s not surprised that states such as Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana have claims of high rates of West Nile infections. She says all these states “have had a long love affair with the chemical industry. 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,” she said.

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