West Nile Virus Hysteria Flares Up

Originally appeared in Fort Collins Now

11 August 2007
Eric Fried

Summer’s winding down, school starts in little over a week (sorry, kids!) and so it’s time for our annual outbreak of West Nile Virus hysteria. Much more prevalent than the disease itself, the virus hysteria turns the brains of many reasonable adults to mush, reducing them to plaintively wailing “Do something!” In response, the Fort Collins City Council has again agreed to aerially spray toxic pesticides, a solution far worse than the problem it is supposed to fix.

How bad is West Nile? Most people who get infected don’t even know it, because they have no symptoms. Once bitten, you’re now immune. Of those who do get sick, over 80% get a fever like a case of the flu. About 15-20% come down with serious symptoms, like meningitis or encephalitis, and a tiny number of unlucky people – usually those with compromised or weak immune systems – die from it. In 2003, the first and worst year West Nile hit Colorado, a total of 67 people died statewide, including nine in Larimer County. If you lost a loved one to West Nile, I really am sorry for your loss. But compare 67 to the tens of thousands of people who died in Colorado that year from heart disease, cancer, respiratory infections, accidents, suicides, even gunshots and workplace injuries, and West Nile at its absolute worst was a pimple on a hippopotamus.

West Nile first appeared in the US in 1999 in New York City, and has since spread across the nation. When the virus hits a new area, people lack any history of exposure to the disease, so the infection and death rates peak. Then we naturally build up antibodies, and disease rates taper off sharply. Since 2003, exactly one Larimer County resident has died from West Nile, the same number who have perished in tragic “car surfing” accidents.

So why is Larimer County Public Health freaking out over a few mosquito bites? Why not let adults take reasonable precautions and leave the nanny state out of the picture? Apparently over-reacting is part of the job description. Not doing something, even when that is the wisest course, cuts against their professional training to attack problems, with spraying, vaccinations, quarantines, dire warnings, etc. We seem to react to every problem with a war mentality, whether it is the War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on Poverty, War on West Nile. War, of course, is good for the generals, their budgets, and their suppliers. But war rarely solves problems, and creates new problems for those on the receiving end of the aerial bombardment.

Like the fog of war, the fog of “adulticide” is indiscriminate, killing not just the target species but anything flying, from birds to bees to bats, and many creatures on the land and in the water the spray falls on. By spraying, we are also killing the mosquito’s predators, and helping speed natural selection to develop insecticide-resistant mosquitoes. The permethrin we spray is a suspected carcinogen (some would say known carcinogen) but any increased cancer rates will take years to show up and it will be impossible to prove where exactly they came from anyway. By then our council will be long gone from office.

When the City started the program in 2004, they received hundreds of calls to their mosquito hotline from people wanting not to be sprayed. In truth, opting out was a charade. The fogger truck might stop spraying at your property line and start again 60 feet down the street, but the pesticide fog did not obey property lines. In classic bureaucratic fashion, the city changed the program so only people with documented respiratory and other health issues could choose to avoid being sprayed. For the rest of us, for now, all we can do is pull a Bill Clinton: don’t inhale. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, so the hysteria, like the disease itself, soon subsides.

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