Viewpoint: Preventing the West Nile Virus

The Daily Texan Online

Like kudzu, the West Nile virus is an unwelcome import that has hit the southern United States especially hard. Unlike the ubiquitous roadside plant, however, West Nile is a public health concern, the effects of which may be more widespread than previously thought.

The fifth Louisiana resident was killed by the West Nile virus yesterday. Currently, there are 71 documented Louisiana residents infected with the disease, making it the worst-ever outbreak of the virus on American soil.

According to the Center for Disease Control, there are 10 suspected cases of the virus in Texas, one in Arkansas and 22 in Mississippi.

The virus has been found in birds in 34 different states.

While there is no reason to panic – a person bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus has a less than 1 percent chance of becoming severely ill and those becoming severely ill die only 3 to 15 percent of the time – the federal government should get involved with trying to quell the problem and prevent the disease from taking more lives.

To begin with, the government needs to figure out why this new outbreak differs from the last one in New York in 1999. The recent outbreak seems to contradict some of the CDC’s previous thoughts about the virus. For example, the CDC believed the chances for fatal infection were higher for the elderly. But now, Louisiana officials are saying people of all ages are at similar risk.

Currently 71 Louisiana residents are receiving treatment for symptoms such as high fever and encephalitis. Their ages vary from pre-teen to over 75. It appears that since previous outbreaks were so limited, officials never fully understood the virus.

In addition to a more complete understanding of the virus, local and national authorities need to step up mosquito control programs. Through relatively inexpensive measures, mosquito populations in affected areas can be decimated; if the vector of the virus can be eliminated, or at least reduced, then there will be alternatives to wearing pants and long sleeves outside in the suffocating heat and slathering children in chemical repellants.

The West Nile virus is not one that demands a concerted effort to develop a vaccine, but it is a potentially fatal – and apparently increasing – threat to residents of the Gulf Coast mosquito belt.

When the Panama Canal was being constructed, one of the most dangerous aspects of the job was the threat of malaria from the Panamanian mosquito population. Instead of treating the symptoms of the malaria outbreaks, the canal authorities attacked and ultimately eliminated the root cause of the disease by systematically eliminating the mosquito population. Federal, state and local governments of affected regions now have the same responsibility to their citizens to step up mosquito prevention efforts.