Let's All Stop Freaking Out About West Nile

It's like clockwork. Every year as summer rolls around, media outlets begin to hyperventilate about the approaching West Nile epidemic, then proceed to breathlessly report on every single human case that shows up. Public health experts dutifully slip on their white coats and talk about what a grave danger West Nile is and all the things people can do to defend themselves.

This year's mild winter does seem to have made the virus appear earlier, and West Nile can indeed be a terrible disease, causing paralysis, permanent neurological damage and death. But that rarely happens.

Through July 3, there have been a total of five cases of the most severe form of West Nile. That's not in Dallas or North Texas. That's nationwide.

Even at its most severe, West Nile kills only 200 to 300 people in a given year in the U.S. The flu, strep throat, choking and accidentally getting caught in machinery are all more common causes of death.

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And the few dozen people who contract the most serious form of the disease will be far outnumbered by the number of people who suffer from moderate flu-like symptoms, who will in turn be vastly outnumbered by carriers who suffer no ill effects whatsoever.

That's not to say that people shouldn't take steps to protect against mosquito bites. As Dr. Cedrik Spak explained to KERA a couple of weeks ago in the most informative and level-headed media treatment of the disease I've come across (because it's the doctor who does all the talking), older people with other medical conditions like diabetes or liver and kidney problems are at elevated risk. The rest of us shouldn't worry so much.

"[P]robably what's happened since Texas got West Nile is that most of us have been exposed to West Nile in kind of the same way that a lot of us when we were kids were exposed to chicken pox, or whatever. So now, we're protected. We're immune, we can't get it again," he told KERA.

So how to explain the annual freakout? The media plays a big role, no doubt, and public health officials, in an attempt to convey the message that they are doing something, exaggerate the risks. But my money's on the name -- exotic, vaguely threatening, and, most of all, from Africa. You rarely, after all, hear people peeing themselves over St. Louis encephalitis.


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