Eradicating West Nile virus would have been easy in 1999

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The season of West Nile virus is upon us and, accordingly, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that the virus has been identified in mosquito pools (standing water such as that in discarded tires and birdbaths) in all New York City boroughs except Manhattan.

Yet this now widespread epidemic was preventable, says ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross. At least it was when when the virus unique to the Western hemisphere at that time was first detected in birds in the New York region during the summer of 1999. Anti-pesticide activist groups put pressure on Mayor Giuliani to hold off on aggressive spraying that first summer, when the virus was encountered only sporadically, he says. "The contagion, now epidemic in 40 states and the most common insect-borne disease in the U.S., spread due to a superstitious fear of pesticides. It s too bad the mayor, usually a formidable opponent of junk science, caved to these groups; we are now paying the penalty.

The prevalence of the mosquito-borne virus rises and falls with that of mosquito populations; summer and fall, then, is when the potential for infection is greatest. And the West Nile virus is indeed considered a potentially serious illness: its symptoms include fever, nausea, rash, and muscle aches; more severe manifestations include meningitis and encephalitis. There is no effective treatment or vaccine, but people can protect themselves by using insect repellents and wearing clothing that covers otherwise exposed areas. Standing pools of water should be drained when possible.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom adds, West Nile is in the same virus family as yellow fever and hepatitis C. This is not a disease to be taken lightly.