In the year 2000, the first full reporting year after West Nile Virus in the US was first identified, two people in the New York City area (total population just over 8 million) died from illnesses associated with the disease. News outlets went a little crazy: dead blue jays became more popular as establishing video on the nightly news than the Empire State Building or Rudy Giuliani or even the standard crowd-of-people-hurrying-down-the-sidewalk video that had been the staple of news stories about NYC since the invention of television.
The fact that the mortality rate from West Nile is fairly low (usually only between 3 – 7% of cases result in death) did little to deaden the media roar, and West Nile white noise very effectively drowned out the fact that, during the same year, more than 2,700 New Yorkers had died of the flu.
When in danger,
When in doubt,
Run in circles
Scream and shout!
– Anonymous source, U.S. military, Infantry Journal, Vol. 35, (1929), p. 369.
West Nile was, after all, a tropical disease, first identified in Africa, that had jumped the pond and landed on our shores. It was from over there – Pat Robertson and Bill O’Reilly were right: the long-awaited African Armageddon was upon us. Suburban mothers who had claimed for years that minute doses of fluoride in the drinking water were injuring their children now began slathering those same kids in enough N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (otherwise known as DEET) to stun a brontosaurus. Even though West Nile was not in the top 10 causes of death in the US – or the top 100, or the top 500 – it received more air time on the news than any other illness during the first few years after its appearance here. The higher death rate from people being crushed by falling furniture just didn’t have the same breathless, stay-tuned immediacy.
The flu, meanwhile, was … well, just the flu: it didn’t have anything African in its title, and you didn’t have the handy dead-bird video for your intro every night.
As the new milennium took hold, so did the new disease: the number of deaths nationwide passed two hundred per annum within only two years. When the first suspected cases were reported in Texas, some communities even rescheduled high-school football games – and in Texas, there is no more graphic indicator of public concern. From one year to the next West Nile Virus infections waxed and waned, dropping to 32 deaths in 2009, while ramping up again to an all-time high of 286 in 2012 – respectable, but still never quite making it past the “other causes” category in US mortality lists.
In 2010, firearms killed just over 31,000 Americans (not including combat deaths). West Nile Virus killed 57. Our elected officials promised to address the scourge of West Nile with all the resources at their disposal – presumably by giving everyone a handgun to shoot the virus with. Lawmakers made it clear that West Nile was threatening our way of life, while unregulated handguns had nothing to do with shooting deaths and sedentary sugar-heavy diets had nothing to do with childhood obesity. Nitric oxide and sulphuric acid plumes in the atmosphere over North Texas in 2010 were not in any way the result of unregulated manufacturing facilities in Ellis County but were instead attributed by politicians to the 2009 Gay Pride parade in Dallas.
This week saw the first home-grown case of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, in – of course – Texas, the state that gave us such giants of scientific and medical insight as Louie Gohmert and Joe Barton. (The patient appears to have contracted the disease while traveling in West Africa.) Unlike West Nile, which is only transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, such as through the bite of a female mosquito, Ebola can be transmitted by ingesting any of the bodily fluids of an infected individual, such as vomit, the effluent from diarrhoea, or particles of mucus released in a sneeze. Any person infected with Ebola can be a significant source of further spread of the disease, if he or she is not isolated and treated promptly and properly.
That said, the odds of any one individual in the United States contracting the disease from the Dallas patient are slim, especially given that the patient is currently in treatment and does not appear to have passed on his infection.
In fact, the greatest danger in any disease occurence is, and always has been, that posed by populations reacting in irrational or uninformed ways. Polio has been eradicated in most of the world – except in parts of Nigeria and Pakistan where vaccination is resisted by people who have been convinced by unscrupulous political leaders that the whole thing is just an American plot to sterilize their children; as a result, those children are being subjected to one of the most devastating illnesses known to man. During the various plagues that bedeviled medieval Europe, Jews and Muslims were often blamed for the outbreaks simply because those populations seemed to be mysteriously less susceptible: that immunity was, of course, not due to some sort of satanic conspiracy, but because Jewish and Islamic cultural traditions required regular bathing, hand-washing before meals, and careful storage and handling of food, limiting exposure to rats, insects, and infected people. Even in modern America, many people in farming communities kill snakes, foxes, coyotes and other predators on sight, allowing rats and other rodents to infest pastures, barns and feed bins; it’s no accident that modern outbreaks of bubonic plague occur exclusively in these places.
If I were going to be traveling to Sierra Leone over the next few weeks, would I be worried? You bet. Am I going to start wearing surgical gloves and a filter mask in the grocery store? I don’t think so.
Is Ebola a terrible disease. You bet it is. This year’s outbreak in west Africa is wiping out entire families, decimating entire towns — without proper care and control efforts, a lot of people die. Is this likely to be what kills me when my number is up? Probably not: so far this year, US injuries and death resulting from tipping over vending machines trying to get a snack without paying for it outnumber Ebola hospitalizations here by over 50 to 1.
I’ll lay off the free Moon Pies and Cheezits for a while and take my chances with the rest.