Monday, September 02, 2002

West Nile Virus Hype?

Remember last summer, when we were bombarded with what seemed like daily updates on shark attacks? Well, it seems that West Nile Virus has replaced the sharks this year as one of the media’s favorite topics of discussion. To some degree that attention is deserved. West Nile Virus is new to the Western Hemisphere, so humans and other animals generally do not have well-developed immunities against it. Plus, it’s natural to react to the unknown with fear. But is West Nile Virus being hyped out of proportion to the degree of risk that it poses to humans?

West Nile Virus is a mosquito-borne arbovirus; birds serve as reservoirs of the virus, mosquitos obtain the virus by biting infected birds, then transmit it to humans. WNV is just one of 5 arboviruses in North America; the others are Lacrosse encephalitis, St. Louis encephalitis, eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), and western equine encephalitis (WEE). What kind of information is available on each of these viral diseases, and how does that relate to the threat that they pose to humans?

West Nile Virus. 131,000 Web pages (18,400 with name in title). ca. 480 human cases since 1999; 120/year.

Eastern Equine Encephalitis. 7,140 Web pages (97 with name in title). 153 human cases, 1964-1998; ca. 4/year.

St. Louis (or Saint Louis) Encephalitis. 6,239 Web pages (73 with name in title). 4,478 human cases, 1964-1998; ca. 128/year

Western Equine Encephalitis. 2,210 Web pages (23 with name in title). 639 human cases, 1964-1998; ca. 18/year.

LaCrosse (or La Crosse) Encephalitis. 1,206 Web pages (34). ca. 70 human cases/year.

West Nile Virus and St. Louis Encephalitis infect about the same number of people per year (120-128). Yet references to West Nile Virus appear on World Wide Web pages 21 times more frequently than references to St. Louis Encephalitis. Even more telling, there are 252 times more major references (i.e., those in which the name appears in the title) to West Nile Virus than to St. Louis Encephalitis. Why the vast difference in coverage? I chalk it up to novelty. St. Louis Encephalitis is old hat. It’s been around for awhile and people have learned to live with it. It’s no longer considered a major risk factor, although a person’s chances of contracting St. Louis Encephalitis is nearly the same as their odds of contracting West Nile Virus. But West Nile Virus is new. It frightens us, peaks our curiosity and interest, as morbid as that may sometimes be.

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