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Risk: Reason and Reality

West Nile virus-O-Noia, AGAIN!

 The United States has already suffered the worst outbreak of West Nile virus ever, with more than 1,100 people ill and 41 dead. And more illness and death are yet to come in the few weeks of warm weather left in which mosquitoes can breed and spread the disease. But - and I say this with sincere compassion and true respect for those who have lost loved ones - so what.

What is this phobia about a disease that, in the scheme of things, is a tiny tiny threat? It sickens a tiny percentage of the people bitten by an infected mosquito, and causes only flu-like symptoms that go away in a couple days. And only a tiny percentage of those who get sick in the first place die, usually people with already compromised immune systems. The fear far exceeds that actual danger. Whence our West-Nile-O-Noia?

It would be easy to blame the news media for bringing the risk to our attention in the first place with their blaring alarmist headlines. (West Nile Virus; Alarming Increase in Cases This Summer) After all, without the heightened awareness about West Nile virus we’d be blithely going about our business and getting bitten by all kinds of bugs that give us all kinds of illnesses - some of them fatal - all the time. But as with most risks, it’s too easy to blame the news media, because they are only taking advantage of something innate in the way we all assess and respond to potential danger. Any risk that feels new, or strange, or unfamiliar, is scarier than the very same risk after we’ve lived with it for a while.

New? Unfamiliar? West Nile virus has been around in the U.S. since 1999 when an infected mosquito first hopped a plane from the Middle East (where the disease has been indigenous since the 1930s) and killed a handful of people in New York City, and then in the next few years spread across the country. It’s hardly new, not even in Dallas, where a concentration of cases this year has killed nearly a dozen people and freaked folks out. But that brings up another interesting part of our risk perception psychology, the long-lasting staying power of framing. We still think about West Nile virus like it’s new because that’s how it was first described.

Wherever West Nile first showed up, the initial news coverage called it “New” and “Exotic”. The coverage in New York framed it as a disease that has “never before been seen in the Western Hemisphere”. How something is first framed shapes how we think about it over time, so West Nile still feels different than St. Louis Encephalitis, or Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or other similar mosquito borne diseases we’ve lived with for decades. It will take a while for that framing to fade, especially for the news media that only begrudgingly lets go of stories that might provoke worry and garner attention.

The problem with this excessive worry is that worry itself is dangerous. Persistent stress (the kind that lasts more than a couple weeks) raises our blood pressure, interferes with memory and fertility and digestion…it even weakens our immune system, so the more worried you are about getting West Nile virus, the more likely it is you’ll get sick if an infected mosquito bites you. Oops!

So we spray with pesticides, which are applied in such low doses that they are considered safe, but which bring their own fears, and stress, and that just adds to the health damage we may be suffering not from West Nile virus itself but from the way we’re reacting to it. 

The disease is now a permanent (and puny) part of the perils of summer. Cases will rise and fall each year with the mosquito and bird populations (some bird species are vectors in the life cycle of the disease.) This happens to be a bad year. West Nile is here. It’s clear. Get used to it. Until we do, being afraid is probably going to do more overall damage to our health than the threat we’re afraid of in the first place.

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