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?

103 comments
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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".  

Damo1234
Damo1234

"Pssh, so 97% of the scientific communities says this is true.  Scientists, what do THEY know?  I know better!"

No, you don't.

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. 

humblysayin
humblysayin

1 in 150 get very sick.  Only about 1 in 5 get sick at all.  The other 80% don't know they were bitten by an infected mosquito.  So, the 700 cases account for less than 20% of those bitten by infected mosquitoes (since not everyone will necessarily seek treatment).  That would mean, about 3500 bitten, yielding 1 in 135, using these numbers.

Diane Krstulovich
Diane Krstulovich

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

Megapril
Megapril

Just looked those up! What a great tip!!

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.

fibergurl
fibergurl

Swimming pools are more common in the southern states, and Texas, in particular. In some neighborhoods, nearly every other house has a pool. So it is not totally bogus.  However, yes there are many more pools in nature, but abandoned pools in a sprawling suburban areas would be the biggest breeding grounds for mosquitoes in those areas and draining them would really help.  

JeremyH6
JeremyH6

Agreed.  This article should really be in the "opinion" section...

Tom Zentra
Tom Zentra

It's not sensational at all. Abandoned homes and swimming pools are another mosquito breeding source. Not the ONE source, but just another that people overlook. If an abandoned home and pool were adjacent to your house, you would feel the wrath of the mosquitoes.

conradshull
conradshull

DDT

Damo1234
Damo1234

 Is a pesticide with well-established detrimental effects.  The fact that you wish to ignore the dozens of scientific studies analyzing the consequences of using DDT does not mean there are no consequences.  That you do not want those studies to be true does not make using DDT a good idea.

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.

JeremyH6
JeremyH6

 Agreed.  Most of the state is in the Sub Tropics category.

Megapril
Megapril

You can find just about every climate there is in Texas. From desert like conditions to mountain peaks with snow and everything in between... And businesses and industry to tap it all.

JeremyH6
JeremyH6

Awww.......now with the insults.  Do you know what they say about when you must use insults and name calling in an argument?

I suggest that you look up areas defined as subtropical...then find the region of Texas.  You might learn something.

Megapril
Megapril

@Jeremy: just what the h e l l are you talking about??? Nothing I said disputes what you said and every bit of it is true. So why don't you read more carefully before you spout off like some know it all A Hole....

JeremyH6
JeremyH6

Please read the words carefully before you respond.

Tom Zentra
Tom Zentra

Most of the state? You truly have NEVER been to Texas. Most of the state is definitely NOT in the subtropics!

lifeisgoodintheavenues
lifeisgoodintheavenues

Keep voting Republican!  They'll solve all your problems...............NOT!

JeremyH6
JeremyH6

What does politics have anything to do with this?

Or were you just looking for somewhere to interject your own agenda?

Damo1234
Damo1234

 Most Republicans, sadly, reject the idea that anything can be done to curb climate change.  It is very likely that climate change will result in outbreaks of diseases in areas where those diseases are not normally found.

I wish this were purely a scientific issue and politics played no role... but politics play a role.

Damo1234
Damo1234

@JeremyH6 According to the Pew Research Center, only 30 percent of Republicans believe humans play a role in climate change.  So "most" (70 percent) believe that changing what we do will not effect climate change.

Meanwhile 64% of Democrats (a majority) believe the scientific consensus that we are experiencing man-made climate change, and need to take steps to change how we live.

Of course simply saying "I believe we need to change things" is easy. Actually doing anything significant is hard.  But it would help matters if the majority of Republicans would stop denying the problem in the face of scientific studies.

TonyInNYC
TonyInNYC

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

fibergurl
fibergurl

thats a real solution, 1 brown bat can eat up to 4000-8000 mosquitoes in one night...release rabies-free brown bats all over texas and forget the chemicals....let nature take care of it.

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.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle

 Sure, only now it's happening at several thousand times the speed it has in the pre-human past.  But of course, greenhouse gases have nothing to do with that . . .

edzep
edzep

So what? You think thousands of climatologists from dozens of countries who know loads more about earth science than you do haven't factored that in? You think all of those PhDs are whacking their foreheads saying, "wow, thanks Tony, we forgot about that fact"? 

Megapril
Megapril

The point is that these scientists and climatologists also factor in scrupulous data concerning mans effect on climate. Whenever you look at their studies you also have to look a little deeper and see is paying for them... There are a lot of elections to win and a lot of money to be made depending on how these studies are skewed in one direction or another. I have a hard time believing they are all strictly scientifically based with so much at stake.

The sad part is that the average citizen does not always know who to believe and normally goes with the majority. It is everyone's responsibility to get the facts and make decisions from there. As Tony stated, the Earth has been cycling since its birth, and there is no way to stop that, only adjust to it.

Proprietist
Proprietist

No, thousands of smart climatologists realized how the governments vigorously dole out research grant money when the threat of mass extinction from things like West Nile virus and "climate change-caused" hurricanes looms large. If there was no threat, there wouldn't be any money. The political control and influence is a perk for academics and environmentalists.

Megapril
Megapril

I think it is naive to think the money doled out strictly results in a "perk"... Where there are people and money involved there will be corruption, like it or not.

Damo1234
Damo1234

As reported in the American Sociological Review, conservative faith in science has dramatically fallen from 1974 to 2010, down more than 25%, to the point where only about a quarter of conservatives have any real faith in science or scientific institutions.

I have no idea why anyone was shocked by Akins' comments the other day, except perhaps that he would have voiced them at such an inconvenient time.  Conservatives' disbelief in scientific studies has itself been scientifically studied.

TonyInNYC
TonyInNYC

I'm not sure I understand  your point. Yes, if there were no threat, the stakes would be a lot lower. But you also seem to saying that just because the threat of mass extinction looms large that's not a reason to research it?

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.

BenfromMO
BenfromMO

Well said.  The problem here is that the journalists no longer research the facts.  Take "climate change" here referencing that it will always be worse in the future.  Didn't they go on about climate change causing the severe droughts Texas had last year and the year before?  And now climate change is going to cause increased mosquitos through "more rain."..  They can't even keep the story straight for multiple years!

The worst part of yellow journalism like this is the fact that it mis-informs people on how diseases are actually spread and how we in fact have ways to control disease.  From DDT in the past to other pesticides, the technology is there to control outbreaks in the first place...Stagnant water is always going to exist, its only through control of that water with usage of pesticides can you keep mosquito populations low enough so that these diseases don't become common.

And second and most important, tropical diseases like malaria as its called had its worst outbreak in Siberia of all places.  Why are they called tropical diseases in the first place?  Well most of the time to be honest its because they originate in tropical locales but spread because humans travel world-wide.  They spread regardless of climate change or any other nonsense like that, they spread because the disease vector is such.  But wouldn't that be something to write about in an article? NAh, that would be honest and we must mention climate change as destroying lives regardless of whether its true or not.

The history lessons and lessons of medicine and science are not served by this journalism technique.  Either the author of this piece is GROSSLY mis-informed or is outright lying...in either case it shows how bad this article is.

Chantie Beigelcoryell
Chantie Beigelcoryell

DDT has horrible consequences! I don't think that it should be considered a resolution to this problem. Furthermore, this journalist is probably less "mis-informed" than you are. Climate change does not imply hot weather and droughts, it implies extreme weather. Wether that is more rain, record heat, increased storm activity (look-up "derechos"), or drought; the extreme weather is thought to be linked to climate change. We broke something like 50,000 heat records in the US this summer. If not climate change, than what is causing these changes in the weather?

Don't believe everything Sean Hannity tells you.

Sean Karpa
Sean Karpa

Climate Change" is almost entirely due to the intensity of the sun, the tilt of the earth, and the orbit of the earth around the sun. Climate on earth has always been hot, mid, cold, mid, hot

it will always change, and theres nothing we can do

Damo1234
Damo1234

 You really don't understand the idea of "averages" do you?  On average climate change will cause more droughts.  That does not mean that there will never be any years with increased rain that prevents outright drought, resulting in an unusually hot and wet season ideal for mosquitoes.  You have to take the average of long periods, you can't step outside and say "wow it's cool and wet right now, guess they were wrong about summers getting hotter" any more than you can visit a city on a rainy day and conclude it's always rainy there.

Why are they called tropical diseases?  Well yes, they're normally found in the tropics, where the weather is ideal for those diseases.  That doesn't mean the weather can never be ideal elsewhere, just that the weather in the tropics is, on average, more likely to be ideal for extended periods, allowing the disease to stay from year to year.  And thus it's a recurring problem in those areas.  There is nothing preventing Siberia from having outbreaks of malaria.  In the summer the temperature in some areas of Siberia can reach up to 100 degrees F, which is higher than the 77 degrees malaria needs.  Siberia is not an icebox year round, and thawing permafrost can create standing water for mosquitoes to thrive in.  You are basically pretending that diseases aren't effected by weather patterns.  They are.

Damo1234
Damo1234

And eventually the sun will go out.  What is your point?  You shouldn't be concerned with theoretical droughts in the far future.  You should concerned with the disasters being caused by man-made changes to the climate, which we are experiencing right now, and will keep happening during the next several lifetimes at least, if we don't take proper action.

Thomas Georgetown
Thomas Georgetown

 The climate has always been changing, so I guess we will on average always have more droughts.

Damo1234
Damo1234

 @facebook-1168368925:disqus

Let me address this point by point.

It is true that CO2 is only one greenhouse gas, and that human emissions of CO2 per year are small compared to natural sources.  However one of the key elements in climate change is the natural re-absorption of CO2.  Historically, CO2 emissions were balanced out by natural absorption of CO2.  Now, however, slightly more CO2 is entering the atmosphere than can be soaked back up by the environment.  Although the amount of manmade CO2 produced in a single year might be only slightly more than the environment can deal with, that excess CO2 builds up year after year, producing harmful effects on the environment.  For more on why CO2 is actually the key greenhouse gas, I would direct your attention to the 2007 New Scientist article on Climate Myths that explained exactly why it is.  There's a number of factors, too numerous and overlapping to go into here.

It's true that Earth has been hotter in the past.  True, but irrelevant.  Many things CAN cause changes in climate, but the data points to the current changes being manmade.  Yes, the sun, the orbit of Earth, the tilt, these are all factors which can influence climate.  But they do not have to be the key factors.  During extremely hot periods in the Earth's past, the sun was actually producing less heat, it was just trapped by higher levels of greenhouse gasses than we have now.  Data does not point to the sun or our orbit being the main cause for our current change in climate.  Nor does the fact that "it was hotter in the past" mean we have no reason to worry.  The rise in sea level accompanying those warmer periods would be enough to submerge most of the world's major cities.

Now as for the notion that there's nothing we can do, it's certainly too late to stop climate change entirely.  We're sitting in it right now.  But it's a continual process, and the sooner we take steps to stop adding to the concentration of greenhouse gasses and put more effort into decreasing CO2 levels, the better.  And we badly need to, because this is a problem that snowballs, since things caused by climate change (such as the melting of permafrost in areas where it does not normally melt) release trapped CO2 into the environment, greatly worsening the problem.

Sean Karpa
Sean Karpa

What annoys me is that they blame climate change on fossil fuels. When humans account for something like .12% of the worlds CO2 output. Additionally, water, oxygen, and i believe hydrogen are better green house gases than CO2. It has been a while since I have researched the issue, so i can not remember if hydrogen is a better green house gas, but i think it is. So by using fossil fuels, we are reducing the oxygen levels and raising the CO2 levels, which means it should get colder.

Additionally, the earth got much warmer during the mid-evil period. When fossil fuels were not used. 

"Climate Change" is almost entirely due to the intensity of the sun, the tilt of the earth, and the orbit of the earth around the sun. Climate on earth has always been hot, mid, cold, mid, hot

it will always change, and theres nothing we can do