Take That, Time: West Nile Might Not Be Completely Our Fault

Earlier this week, Time magazine opined that West Nile disease, which has now killed 12 people in Dallas County and sickened almost 300 more, is a "self-inflicted wound." Bryan Walsh wrote that an extremely mild winter and scorching summer created a great breeding ground for mosquitoes. Climate change also isn't helping: As the climate warms, tropical diseases are becoming more common outside the zones where they were once traditionally found.

But Walsh also blames poverty for the spread of West Nile: "[T]he South is also the poorest region in the U.S. -- especially in Gulf Coast states like Louisiana and Alabama, where the poverty rate can push 20 percent," he writes. "If we can't fix that problem, this summer's brush with West Nile will look like a bug bite compared to the troubles to come."

For those of us who have watched as some of Dallas County's wealthiest areas were hardest hit by West Nile, one response comes to mind: Huh?

Another science writer isn't certain about that conclusion either. A friend of mine, Umair Irfan, is a journalist with ClimateWire, one with a background in biology and biochemistry. He's been trying to figure out why Dallas County's infection rate is so much worse than last year's, despite, as he puts it, "similar heat and drought conditions."

In a piece last week, Irfan offered several explanations. For starters, the disease itself may have actually changed: West Nile is caused by an RNA virus that mutates quickly. Nobody knows yet, though, whether the outbreak here was caused by a new strain.

Ultimately, though, Irfan and the experts he spoke to concluded that "weather extremes" are still the best explanation for the uptick in West Nile cases this year. "Last summer was too dry in Texas for these mosquitoes to form vast swarms, but a warm winter, heavy rains this spring and high temperatures this summer formed plenty of small pockets of standing water, creating a comfortable abode for mosquitoes to rear their young," he wrote, disgustingly. Birds also carry the virus; with fewer cases last year, fewer birds were infected, meaning there's a large population this year with no immunity to West Nile.

But poverty as a contributing influence? "I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion that poverty is the defining factor," Irfan told me. "Almost all diseases affect the poor more, but that's not always how the diseases emerge, and given enough infections, many people can be vulnerable. ... Yes, people are driving climate change (self-inflicted policy), but new diseases emerge as people move around and even rich countries transmit disease. Lyme disease is moving from hoity-toity New England to maple syrupy Canada-stan, for example, and that is linked to climate more so than wealth."

However, wealth might help contribute to West Nile, at least the type of wealth that manifests itself in over-watered golf courses and lawns. Those, Irfan says, "could play a role if they allow puddles to accumulate," creating a tasty, mosquito-attracting environment.

With climate change, Irfan says, "Texas may be becoming more tropical as the climate shifts, so it fits that these diseases are gradually moving northward."

Despite that, one of the experts he spoke to, Gabriel Hamer, an assistant clinical professor at Texas A&M, thinks we probably won't be looking at another serious outbreak next year. "I think the conditions were really rare," he told Irfan. "That probably wouldn't repeat itself." The hope is that the birds being infected by the mosquitoes this year will build up an immunity next year and stop being such helpful little winged disease vectors.

You heard the man. Somebody get an airplane and dive bomb those birds with a vaccine, stat.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan