WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE WEST NILE VIRUS SITUATION?
By William Olkowski, PhD. 9.14.12
Part of this report was aired on 91.9 FM, KCFM, on the University of Santa Barbara, CA, on 9.6.12. This update was created on 9.14.12.
It’s a simple formula: The more fear the less knowledge, and the corollary is also true: More Knowledge Less Fear. This relationship occurs again and again across many issues. Today we have a great example in the West Nile Virus disaster and today our main story is this formula and how it applies to understanding how best to manage West Nile Virus.
First Some Facts:
West Nile Virus (WNV) is a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, different species in different areas
West Nile Virus was first found in theUSin 1999, and has since spread across the US.
The virus reservoir is birds, possibly horses and probably other wild species.
The origin is believed to be Africa.
WNV, was introduced to US, in 1999, probably in an infected bird.
Most cases are mild and undetected.
Old sick people mostly die from this disease; everybody else has probably been exposed and has at worse mild flue like symptoms if they exhibit at all.
In all cases of reported disease occurrence one must account for improved monitoring and reporting before assuming rising case numbers indicate an epidemic. The word epidemic should be reserved for epidemics.
Like all invading organisms the first reactions are severe because the natural systems which would normally stop or reduce the invader are compromised or the invader is preadapted for exploitation in the new ecosystem.
From CDC website:
Since 1999, more than 30,000 people in theUnited Stateshave been reported as getting sick withWest Nilevirus. Infected mosquitoes spreadWest Nilevirus (WNV) that can cause serious, life altering disease.
- Updated Fact Sheet
- Eliminate standing water where mosquitoes can lay eggs
- Install or Repair Window and Door Screens
- Support Community-Based Mosquito Control Programs
201 2 West Nile Virus Update: as of August 21, 2012.
Thus far in 2012, 47 states have reportedWest Nilevirus infections in people, birds, or mosquitoes. A total of 1118 cases ofWest Nilevirus disease in people, including 41 deaths, have been reported to CDC. Of these, 629 (56%) were classified as neuroinvasive disease (such as meningitis or encephalitis) and 489 (44%) were classified as non-neuroinvasive disease.
The 1118 cases reported thus far in 2012 is the highest number of West Nile virus disease cases reported to CDC through the third week in August since West Nile virus was first detected in theUnited Statesin 1999. Approximately 75 percent of the cases have been reported from 5 states (Texas,Mississippi,Louisiana,South Dakota, andOklahoma) and almost half of all cases have been reported fromTexas.
- Make sure you have good screens on your windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out.
- Get rid of mosquito breeding sites by emptying standing water from flower pots, buckets and barrels. Change the water in pet dishes and replace the water in bird baths weekly. Drill holes in tire swings so water drains out. Keep children’s wading pools empty and on their sides when they aren’t being used.
- wear long sleeves and pants at these times or consider staying indoors during these hours.
When a new invader is identified is when the first level of FEAR originates. The FEAR is well founded as people who are stricken and die do so in a terrible manner. But as ecosystem and health responses developed to the invading virus, things get better. These natural factors do not usually fix the problems from the invader but lessen its impacts. Time is needed for adequate responses to develop. This view is confirmed by a long series of invading organisms. Some further background on mosquito control:
Throughout theUSalmost every county has a mosquito abatement district. These are called MADs, a curious acronym to be sure, but it’s not mad to have these public agencies. They were developed when the country was heavily beset with malaria, which was eliminated back in the 1940s and 1950s. This is, by the way, an example of publically supported pest control which has paid massive dividends by first eliminating malaria and subsequently helped control various other pests like biting flies, rats and mice, and in some places snakes and other wildlife. Do not fall prey to those who want to reduce government spending wholesale as this sort of simplistic thinking will certainly chop indiscriminantly MAD budgets. With lower budgets for MADs the real effect will be loss of trained personnel resulting in more wholesale spraying. Wholesale aerial applications will kill many things besides mosquitoes. And such spraying will kill many species that eat mosquitoes.
Recently, the news was full of a large scale aerial spraying for WNV inTexasaround theDallasarea. Something like 20 or so deaths occurred with a few hundred cases when aerial spraying was started on over 50,000 acres.
Now, as any good MAD manager knows aerial spraying is a last ditch approach to managing mosquitoes. In the old days when I was a kid we used to have regular DDT fogging during mosquito season. Us kids used to run through the fog, we thought it was fun. I am glad today when people are alarmed about aerial spraying as it is probably ineffective, but ignorant political types want to do something to help out and this tactic is easy as there are always people who want to spray.
Today, being much wiser, MAD managers know that the first line of defense is what is called source reduction. This means having inspectors respond to public calls about excessive mosquito numbers, they go out and find mosquito breeding sources and treat those before adults emerge to begin biting people. Female mosquitoes bite for the protein rich blood source we and other animals provide. Female mosquitoes do the biting so they can produce eggs as the protein is vital. The males feed on flowers.
I joke that the males in characteristic fashion get all the perks. They don’t have to brave a host who may swat them and do all the hard work to propagate the next generation.
End joke. Its hard to imply a joke via just the written word so that is why I have made this ending.
So I wondered why aerial spraying was chosen and suspected something was amiss.
Recent reports fromHoustonindicate that the city has now made the effort to install a very competent IPM type program, emphasizing house inspections, trapping and virus sampling of mosquitoes, and spot treatments, along with ground treatment of known infested areas. The question of just what is happening about the large scale aerial spraying has not been seen in the news since then.
Large scale spraying kills all sorts of living things, to say nothing about effects on humans. So any large scale pesticide applications must include public assessments to obtain permissions. It’s our right to know, especially if we are to be subject to a mass spraying episode. Whether it is worthwhile to treat such a large area, and if this is the best way to approach this situation are two questions which need answers before going further should be provided to the public.
So what can be done now. First we need to get SMART, and that is not the name of an old spy TV comedy but an educational and communication challenge. Knowledge pushes against FEAR. Mo
Knowledge and Fear are Inversely Associated
Knowledge means less FEAR, and less FEAR means rational thought can gain an entry to decision making.
To control mosquitoes means reduce their numbers before they become pestiferous. Spraying late is what we call REVENGE TREATMENTS. It is not desirable and impossible to eliminate all mosquitoes as they are key elements in many, many food chains. Fisherman know that fish eat mosquito larvae – also called wigglers. Fish would starve without mosquitoes as food. Frogs, birds, toads, bats, dragon flies, all sorts of things feed on mosquitoes. Indiscriminate killing mosquitoes, as with large scale aerial attacks, kills these beneficial organisms and guess what, this makes things worse. Education about the biology of the natural world must come first in managing mosquito problems.
Next is teaching people to avoid mosquito bites. This can be done by inspecting homes to find water sources, close holes in window screens, fix screened doors to exclude the little biters, and use repellents when going out at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes like to bite. This requires detailed attention, certainly possible, but more difficult than ordering a massive aerial spraying program.
When I was a mosquito inspector around WilmingtonDelaware, after graduating college back in the 1960s we were always finding mosquito breeding sources on people’s property. We were responding to complaints, which usually took the form of “It’s the creek, pond, or some other nearby water body that is the problem”. But a careful walk around the house and property would find, old tires, kids toys, and other containers, bad drainage areas harboring small bodies of water after rains, clogged gutters, unfilled tree holes, etc., right on the property.
Cemeteries were one of our favorite places to search for flower urns as people put flowers on graves with a few cups of water to keep the flowers fresh longer. It was tedious work and we usually did an hour or so and quit after finding a few. One such container can produce thousands of mosquito larvae and the adults can fly, sometimes a mile or so, even longer distances. An old abandoned outhouse was a great source, millions and millions, like stars in the universe, can populate the local universe for months until discovered.
So there’s a rational way to go about mosquito control and then there’s the wayTexaswas going, but now appears to have changed direction. My Fear, until further knowledge surfaces, is that many other cities and states will react just like the pesticide companies want. Shoot first and ask questions later. But now with thisTexasexample, the way to fight WNV intelligently seems to be developing. This is good news. Good news seldom sells papers.
I am watching the Texas struggle and will continue reporting on it.
Some New Thoughts on the WNV Situation
Since writing the above I have continued to log onto WN news via Google searches. Now I am developing another idea which still needs further work, requiring interviews with people on the ground, so to speak. I have my experiences and attitudes and opinions and just how these hold up against realities needs further checking. With that reservation here is my new thought.
West Nile Virus is now endemic in the US. That means there is a smoldering but tiny fire going that occasionally flares up. The reports of a few people dying here and there over theUS, means the public health system is working just right. We are getting reports of infections, mortalities and cases. Great. The trouble may be with the media and how this phenomena is being reported to a widely ignorant fearful audience. Why do I say this?
Consider the fact that each year an average of 36,000 people die of common flu. In comparison, that mortality rate is hundreds of times higher than WNV. Yet, WNV is new and everybody pays attention to new things, especially if you can die from contracting the disease. We all know that mosquitoes carry the virus. We then assume the main problem is mosquitoes and therefore go about killing them with as much as money, time, and intelligence we can muster.
An alternative view is that since WNV kills mostly old, infirm and compromised individuals it may be that these old sick people just get an WNV infection and it pushes them over easily. Or they had it as a mild infection but something else pushes them into fatal disease.
Meanwhile excessive spraying makes the real situation worse as it damages whatever forces exist to reduce mosquito populations. Just why and who is dying needs to be understood. Read the best source about WNV, which is on Wikepaedia. Its better than the write up on the CDC website. It has the history and from that information it is clear that WNV infections are normally mild, widespread and mostly benign, certainly tolerable, like a mild case of the flu. This view is contrary to fanning the flames, adding fuel to a smoldering fire, as the media is wont.
With such a view what can be added to a treatment program? Yes, mosquitoes must be managed, but not in a helter skelter manner spraying thousands of acres because two people die who are near death anyway. It’s a waste all around and can make things worse. Prventative work is needed by trained people who understand the biology of mosquitoes. Publically supported systems need augmenting and oversight. Forget cutting governent programs, better to redesign them to function better. We need government, but maybe less foreign military action.
Next I want to interject a systems view which is usually difficult for most to understand. If old compromised people are mostly the victims, just how they acquire the infections needs to be understood. Are they alone and people rush to their help after things have already gotten hopeless? What could be done to prevent the conditions which predispose such people to the virus, in addition to mosquito control? Why are their immune systems compromised? Is it HIV, other virus systems, hypertension, etc. These other causal factors need focus and treatment. Old trees die from multiple accumulations of conditions and pathogens. The pathogen is easier to understand.
And then part of this analysis is what can be done to improve their immune systems? Here traditional medicine fails as their focus is primarily on use of drugs, which in the largest view are similar to pesticides as they are mostly molecules which interfere with various biochemical processes. Consider the suffix added to most drugs: “anti”. For example, antihypertensives, anti-depressants, anti-coagulants, etc. It seems we know gobs about how to stop and slow things down, but not how to improve immune systems. Certainly anything which interferes with our immune response should be suspect.
Now comes a fact which could illuminate some dark places. GMO crops are reported to affect the immune system. This is not so far fetched as it may seem. There are reports of massive increases in allergies when GMO soybeans were introduced into the UK. If true, and I believe Jeffrey Smith (Genetic Roulette, 2007) then we have something we can alter. We don’t need anything in our diets with such a threat, especially as it is unnecessary. We can produce all the food we need without GMO crops, notwithstanding the lie campaign developing from the GMO companies with their massive bank accounts.
In any case all the toxicants humans in the US are exposed to in their foods, and their daily environments need to be examined. Remember you can’t see toxicants with the naked eye, you have to see it with your mind. In contract, nuclear disasters are visible, and so is climate change, toxicants are the most difficult to understand.