Ecocentric

Why West Nile Virus Is a Self-Inflicted Wound

A tropical disease rages in a decidedly untropical place —Texas. Both science and politics play roles.

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Paul Moseley / Fort Worth Star-Telegram / Getty Images

Spraying for mosquitoes in Fort Worth, Texas, will proceed despite heavy rain that moved into the area on Friday, August 17, 2012, in a bid to curb an outbreak of West Nile virus.

There are no good ways to die, but death by the West Nile virus is worse than most. The tropical disease begins in birds, which pass it on to mosquitoes that then go on to infect human beings with a bite. Most people who contract West Nile don’t experience any symptoms at all, but about 1 in 5 suffer fever, headaches and body aches, usually lasting a week or so. A far less lucky 1 in 150 experience high fever, tremors, convulsions, paralysis and coma. Some — especially the immunocompromised and the elderly — die.

That’s what makes the major outbreaks of West Nile virus in the U.S. this summer so scary. So far, nearly 700 cases have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), including 26 deaths — the biggest nationwide outbreak since 2004. The situation is particularly bad in and around Dallas, where the virus has killed 10 people and sickened more than 200 so far this summer. The city has declared a state of emergency and, for the first time in 45 years, has begun aerial spraying of pesticide to kill the mosquitoes that are the virus’ delivery system — even in the face of residents’ heated concerns that the pesticide could be more dangerous than the disease. “I cannot have any more deaths on my conscience because we failed to take action,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told reporters recently.

(READ: Five Things You Need to Know About West Nile Virus)

Why has the summer of 2012 proved so hospitable to the West Nile virus and the mosquitoes that carry it? Like so much else that’s gone this season, blame the weather. An extremely mild winter throughout much of the country allowed more mosquitoes than usual to survive, while the unusually high temperatures this scorching summer further increased their numbers as well as speeding up their life cycle, causing more of the virus to build up in their salivary glands. (West Nile—which originated in Uganda—was first discovered in the U.S. during the very hot summer of 1999, in New York City.) Dallas in particular, ground zero of the outbreaks this year, had a rainy spring, which left more standing water — ideal nurseries for mosquito eggs. The housing crisis may play a role in the spread as well: many foreclosed homeowners have abandoned their properties, sometimes leaving behind swimming pools that make excellent mosquito breeding grounds.

Ultimately, officials in Texas and other hard-hit states should be able to bring the outbreak under control, both through pesticides and by draining pools of standing water. As the summer ends, so will West Nile season. But thanks to climate change, this isn’t likely to be the last time a disease we’d usually associate with the tropics makes its way into the U.S. The mosquito-borne dengue fever, which is endemic in much of the tropics, has been reported in south Texas, as well as the Florida Keys. The first U.S. case of  Chagas disease, a deadly Latin American infection transmitted by a cockroach-like bug that can feed on human blood, was reported last month. As the climate continues to warm worldwide, the zone of risk for all these diseases and even malaria could continue to expand.

But things aren’t as simple as just “hotter temperatures equals more disease.” That’s because there’s another factor at work: us — or, more specifically, our policymakers. The severity of tropical diseases is also a matter of whether or not governments are capable — and willing — to defend their populations against infections. In a 2010 paper in Nature, researchers noted that even though global temperatures increased throughout the 20th century, the range of malaria actually contracted, as countries developed economically and put in place measures to control the disease. Malaria was once endemic in southern U.S. states like Florida and Georgia until after World War II, when it was eradicated thanks to the work of the CDC, which was created in 1946 with the stated goal of controlling the disease. Today tropical infections like malaria and dengue are as much diseases of poverty as they are of climate, which is why nearly 200,000 people die from malaria each year in the desperately poor Republic of Congo, while the disease has been eliminated in the tropical but rich island nation of Singapore. It isn’t being hot alone that kills — it’s being poor.

That’s one more reason southern states like Texas will be the first to feel the push of new tropical diseases, as Peter J. Hotez of the National School of Tropical Medicine pointed out in a recent piece for the New York Times. The South is warmer than the rest of the country, of course, and with climate change it’ll keep getting warmer. But the 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%. 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.

MORE: Are Over-The-Counter Bug Treatments Useless?

149 comments
JR55911118
JR55911118

The only thing self inflicted is the amount of Brawndo this moron author has been using.

JR55911118
JR55911118

Climate change, climate chage, climate change. The climate has been changing since the beginning of time. Why are people so arrogant or stupid to thing that MAN is changing the climate? We are not that important or powerful. Oh, I forgot... "we just need more Brawndo because it has electrolytes".  

JR55911118
JR55911118

Climate change, climate change, climate change. The climate has been changing since the beginning of time and only an idiot would believe that MAN is the culprit. This is just more evidence that the dumbing down of America is working. "We just need more Brawndo because it has electrolytes".

bbetzen
bbetzen

Bryan, your "self-inflicted hypothesis" may be on to something.  It appears that the most effective way Dallas had to eliminate mosquitos was a victim of the budget cuts 2 years ago.  A Mr. Will Beckley retired and it is said his department left with him.  Nobody was left to place mosquito larvae eating minnows into Dallas bodies of water and streams.  We had one dry year when all the ponds dried so the minnows died, then rain so the ponds and pools filled up again and mosquitos had a wonderful time!  Here are the details: http://schoolarchiveproject.bl...   So Dallas did bring this down on themselves based on this data.

bbetzen
bbetzen

Bryan, your "self-inflicted hypothesis" may be on to something.  It appears that the most effective way Dallas had to eliminate mosquitos was a victim of the budget cuts 2 years ago.  A Mr. Will Beckley retired and it is said his department left with him.  Nobody was left to place mosquito larvae eating minnows into Dallas bodies of water and streams.  We had one dry year when all the ponds dried so the minnows died, then rain so the ponds and pools filled up again and mosquitos had a wonderful time!  Here are the details: http://schoolarchiveproject.bl...   So Dallas did bring this down on themselves based on this data.

conoclast
conoclast

But, but...global warming doesn't exist; my pastor TOLD me!  

oneStarman
oneStarman

Dengue Fever will be hitting the USA Soon in the Brave (but Hotter) New world.  It will make West Nile look like the common cold.  Even THIS Outbreak seems especially Virulent.  The article says 1 in 150 get 'Really sick' from West Nile but in  this outbreak of 700 cases there have be 26 DEATHS that is more like 1 in 27. 

Diane Krstulovich
Diane Krstulovich

Don't forget mosquito dunks!  They really help.  (lawn and garden stores - and amazon dot com).

Eric Dee
Eric Dee

Ridiculously sensational and disingenuous to include foreclosed homes as  a contributing factor.  The amount of abandoned swimming pools in Texas is miniscule compared to the amount of standing water in nature.  It's a laughable assertion, and debases your credibility.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle

" A tropical disease rages in a decidedly untropical place — Texas"

The writer of that headline obviously has never been to Houston in the summer time.

TonyInNYC
TonyInNYC

Also, I am very much in favor of bats and dragonflies. 

TonyXL
TonyXL

The climate has been either warming or cooling for earth's entire history. The warming episodes occurred even when there were no humans on earth.

Dallas Lane
Dallas Lane

 I'm glad so many people are recognizing this article for what it is! My god, I've never seen such a blatantly unsupported headline. This kind of crap would get shot down in journalism 101. I don't care if you agree or disagree with the political agenda. Fact is, this should have gotten stopped by the editors before it hit the web.

Magik13
Magik13

Notice how diseases, droughts, and catastrophes caused by Anthropogenic Climate Change are manifesting in the areas of the country that have done nothing but deny and spread lies and propaganda about the dangers of climate change and the dire crises it presents to humanity. 

Evil people like the Koch brothers and the republican party have spent billions to deceive the world about these dangers...even as responsible scientists have been warning us for 20 years about the consequences. Go buy another SUV or pickup truck that you don't need. I am in no way gloating over the suffering of the people in Texas or anywhere in the south but we reap what we sew both individually and collectively. It's called the Golden Rule in the West and Karma in the East. Change your attitudes and your behavior before its too late.

oneStarman
oneStarman

26 Deaths out of 700 cases is more like 1 in 27 instead of the 1 in 150 that are said to  get 'Really Sick' as stated in the Article - Not worth mentioning? Dengue Fever is right in Line for the Next big Deal in the Brave (but Hotter) New world. It will make West Nile look like the common cold.

j0eschm0e
j0eschm0e

but this story does not explain the title...Why West Nile Virus Is a Self-Inflicted Wound

is it saying the government hasnt acted enough?

JeremyH6
JeremyH6

Pools?  Seriously?  Chlorine kills mosquitoes.   Oh, and Texas was not hit as hard by the housing crisis....not as many vacant homes.

Nice try though.

smml
smml

Tropical infections like dengue and malaria are as much diseases of poverty is misleading. The vectors for malaria and dengue are not the same, as much as their breeding preferences. Malaria has been eliminated in Singapore, but dengue has been on the rise, with few thousand cases annually. Dengue has also appeared in Florida and reemerged in Hawaii. Proverty could be one of the causes for mosquito outbreaks but not as the way the article implies.

Marson1
Marson1

Mosquitoes have a natural enemy.  This is a small amphibious insect whose favorite food is mosquito larva. 

I first discovered these critters many years ago, when I was living in Cayman Brac.  I was drinking a glass of milk.  As I raised the glass to drink, a tiny bug surfaced in it.   some days later, I got one in a glass of water and put a live mosquito wiggler in with him.  Instantly he grabbed the wiggler and ate him.

Unfortunately, soon after, the islands were sprayed for mosquitos, and that probably did in their  amphitious enemies also. 

KirstenS
KirstenS

Thank you for the article. I want to quickly take issue with your comment that Chagas is spread by a "cockroach-like" insect. It is spread by triatomas, also known as "Mexican Kissing bugs," or the "Eastern Blood-Sucking Cone-Nose". These bear little to no relation to cockroaches, and, apart from the risk of contracting Chagas dsease, carry an added risk of severe allergic reactions for people sensitive to their anesthetic (like myself). Folks in the southern states, particularly in Texas, I think, would do well to read up on this.

MarkRick
MarkRick

If the science is correct, the mosquitos pick up the virus from birds. That being the path of infection to humans, the questions is: why has the virus-infected bird population increased this Spring/summer season? If it isn't the birds carrying the virus, why or how does the virus sustain itself in mosquitos from season to season?

For us Texans, especially those of us in DFW and North Texas, last year was a unprecedented scorcher. Did the virus persist in the mosquito population when the standing water problem was all but eliminated by flaming temperatures? 

Certainly it was a mild winter and a wet Spring this year, but it's been damned hot again. So did the birds bring the virus this season or did the virus persist in the mosquito population? Either way, human infection is a dead end for the proliferation of the virus. No symptoms, mild symptoms or severe symptoms still doesn't allow the virus to reproduce out of a human host according to all reports.

When the first, big West Nile infection erupted in DFW in 2006(?), there were dead birds in the streets to indicate which zip codes were in need of spraying with insecticides. This year there is no mention of dead birds. In the zip code where I reside which is part of "ground zero" mentioned in the national articles, we are not seeing dead birds.

We always have mosquitos during the Summer in North Texas. But mosquitos are a bridging vector for the infection. This article solely focuses on this middle sequence of the infectious pathway and therefore is deficient for a reasonable scientific analysis and just piss-poor for a sociopolitical analysis.

It's likely the science to understand the causes of the outbreak of West Nile fever this Summer in DFW are incomplete, but the author and his conclusions are clearly flawed when the East Coast, Michigan and Illinois are as much sites of the infection as is North Texas.     

  

datawag
datawag

Really? This article is not only poorly researched, but as importantly, poorly written. For example, "dispite"?? Does Time not have editors, or more pathetically, spellcheck? When I read articles like this which has poor grammar and incorrect spelling, I can only assume its content is also worthless.

Ebonie Conner
Ebonie Conner

My teenage daughter, Jordan Conner, contracted West Nile Meningoencephalitis....our story was featured in most all the media outlets over the past week. My daughter has no underlying health issues, wasn't spending time outdoors due to the Texas' heat, we aren't around standing pools of water, yet and still she not only was infected by a mosquito carrying the virus but a rare and worst strand. 

West Nile infected our entire life......I find comments of others regarding articles such as this interesting to read because they the debate, emotion, energy/passion behind some of these statements are next to never proactive to spark a solution. You guys could use your voice, words/comments and the time you spend expressing your thoughts to demand a vaccine and medicine be developed. 

The who, what, when, where and why's of West Nile is practically irrelevant....how do we protect our families and communities from this taking a bigger bite? And if we know more dangerous type of viruses evolving, then what is the CDC and other such agencies doing to stay ahead of the game.....

Those are the comments, questions and research we should be doing...trust me, in  just one bite west nile invades your life: emotionally, mentally, physically and financially. Then it's too late.....you've already been bitten. 

Most all of you appear to be intelligent and of strong opinion, use your time and energy to initiate debates that develop solutions. 

Mosquitoes don't know and don't care; what state you live in, your income bracket, your social status or thoughts. West Nile is spreading because of our indifference and ignorance. Until now it hasn't affected us to care enough to ask questions and expect results. 

Ebonie Conner

Ebonie Conner
Ebonie Conner

My teenage daughter, Jordan Conner, contracted West Nile Meningoencephalitis....our story was featured in most all the media outlets over the past week. My daughter has no underlying health issues, wasn't spending time outdoors due to the Texas' heat, we aren't around standing pools of water, yet and still she not only was infected by a mosquito carrying the virus but a rare and worst strand. 

West Nile infected our entire life......I find comments of others regarding articles such as this interesting to read because they the debate, emotion, energy/passion behind some of these statements are next to never proactive to spark a solution. You guys could use your voice, words/comments and the time you spend expressing your thoughts to demand a vaccine and medicine be developed. 

The who, what, when, where and why's of West Nile is practically irrelevant....how do we protect our families and communities from this taking a bigger bite? And if we know more dangerous type of viruses evolving, then what is the CDC and other such agencies doing to stay ahead of the game.....

Those are the comments, questions and research we should be doing...trust me, in  just one bite west nile invades your life: emotionally, mentally, physically and financially. Then it's too late.....you've already been bitten. 

Most all of you appear to be intelligent and of strong opinion, use your time and energy to initiate debates that develop solutions. 

Mosquitoes don't know and don't care; what state you live in, your income bracket, your social status or thoughts. West Nile is spreading because of our indifference and ignorance. Until now it hasn't affected us to care enough to ask questions and expect results. 

Ebonie Conner

LevonTostig
LevonTostig

I was waiting for the punch line and there it was: "Climate change" and "self-inflicted."

Time editors, when you find that you're being told what to publish, and that, "freedom of the press," is something, "old timers," ramble on about, remember that this, too, was, "self-inflicted."