I'm not, by nature, someone who spends much time worrying. I assume, more or less automatically, that I'm not going to contract that horrible disease, that ominous-looking strangers probably won't murder me, that there will be time to swerve when that 18-wheeler drifts into my lane. My wife says I worry too little, that a bit more fear would aid me in self-preservation, but I've always looked at it as more of an asset, something that allowed me to assess threats rationally.
The West Nile virus never particularly worried me. In my experience, the disease plays out in an annual ritual of media hype followed anticlimactically by a scattered handful of cases. It still doesn't worry me much even as the disease's toll this year mounts. The odds of contracting the most severe form of the disease remain very small. I wrote as much earlier this month. I wasn't claiming that West Nile doesn't sometimes manifest itself as a terrible, life-altering affliction or saying that people shouldn't take reasonable steps to protect themselves. My point was that people need not hyperventilate while doing so.
Then, three days later, someone died, then someone else, and I began looking less and less like a contrarian blogger tossing aside conventional wisdom that had grown stale, and more and more like a full-fledged asshole.
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"Your hubris is appalling," wrote a commenter whose previously healthy 36-year-old husband was for months reduced to a helpless paraplegic and remains crippled after a bout with the disease. Just yesterday a public health guy with UT Southwestern called me. He was polite, but his meaning was clear: Don't you think it was a tad bit, you know, irresponsible to make light of what has become an epidemic?
I'm sticking to the idea that people shouldn't fret so much, but things are bad this year. Five people have died of West Nile already this year in Dallas County and 71 have developed the severe, neuroinvasive form of the disease. "We are unfortunately in the midst of the worst West Nile outbreak to have ever impacted our Dallas area," Wendy Chung, the county's chief epidemiologist, wrote in an email to me yesterday.
So here you go: You hereby have my permission to freak out. Just a little bit.
No one's sure why this year is so much worse than before. Weather patterns could be a contributing factor, Chung wrote, but it's a hard thing to pin down. The best way to cope with the outbreak is for people to take preventative measures like removing standing water, installing door and window screens, liberally applying insect repellent and generally avoiding mosquitoes like the plague. And keep doing those things for the next couple of months, since West Nile season typically peaks in August.