West of Denial

Back in the spring of 1965, I woke up on the train in the San Bernardino railroad station after a long night’s ride from San Bernardino. I was 7 years old. My mother the nurse noticed a redness beneath my ears. She followed it down the neck, opening my shirt. A raised, red rash exploded on my chest. I felt hot to the touch. She knew what this was: measles.

Seven to fourteen days before, someone in my school had coughed out the rubeola virus. Along with most of my classmates, I’d sucked it in. During the week I was out of school, attendance at Holy Rosary dropped to a mere handful. Out of the entire first grade — two separate classes totalling more than 30 students each — only two students appeared for their lessons.

That was an epidemic.

Having lived through this, one of the last uncontained outbreaks of measles in American life, I read closely the details of the West Nile infection now pounding the public with its headlines. I concluded several weeks ago — after I saw the first signs warning about the appearance of mosquitos at Peters Canyon — that while a few people were at risk for the worst case scenario of the virus, the overwhelming majority of us who were infected would feel mild or no symptoms at all.

Late in July, I took the Visalia Times Delta to task for overstating the danger from West Nile. Noting that only one in five people who are infected by the virus show any symptoms and even fewer were afflicted with life-threatening illness, I went on to caution the media in general against sensationalizing this story:

Journalists, as a class, are not idiots but they are poorly trained in basic sciences, psychology, social sciences, and statistics. They often lack the skills and the historical perspective to be able to separate valid evidence from hogwash and lies. They do not know how to question or research stories or vet out bias or recognize snake oil. Their errors transmit from mind to mind via the vector of television, radio, newspapers, and the nets. And the public, having also not been well educated in these vital life skills, do not question what they hear and read except on a very superficial level as in “the press has a liberal slant”, “they lie”, and the post-modernist “different truths” fallacy.

The price we pay is mass histrionic behavior. And is that good for our health?

On Friday, The OC Weekly “broke” the story that there might denial about the danger posed to the public health by West Nile Virus. “[C]onsider the possibility that your preeminent public-health agency—sentinels of public safety—may themselves have little more than a hazy picture of this epidemic still in our midst,” John Underwood proposes, using a tactic reminiscent of the infamous CNN speculation about the modem tax back in the late nineties. When you have no firm facts and you feel a bit on the paranoid side, ask a what if. What if we have misread the significance of this new disease?

Their primary source for the panic is a press conference held by Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Fullerton) who couldn’t understand why, with all the thousands of acres of marshland spread across the southland, health officials could not walk out to a specific plot and say “This is where the first West Nile-bearing mosquitoes will hatch.” Spitzer ignited a fear frenzy over West Nile Virus that the Weekly stoked to the max.

And it’s all that damned government. There’s got to be a coverup.

Hardly. First, it is true that West Nile Virus has come to California in a big way. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that 45 people — 14 of them here in California — have died from WNV. (The San Francisco Chronicle reported that 16 people have died here in California. For purposes of comparison, sixty three people died in Colorado and thirty seven died in Texas last year.)

Second, it is important to realize that while most people experience mild if any symptoms, a few people can be severely stricken. The Times tells us:

Although the North American strain of West Nile is more virulent than its foreign cousins, most people who become infected with the virus have hardly any symptoms, and the vast majority of cases are never diagnosed. Because the virus attacks the brain and spinal cord, however, the worst-hit victims experience brain inflammation (encephalitis), which can cause symptoms that last a year or more. These include severe headaches, muscle weakness or paralysis, fatigue, tremors, balance problems, memory lapses and mental disorientation.

Third, there is reason to feel that the micro-epidemic is over for this year. Mosquitoes don’t breed well in cold weather. Besides that, most of the lowland marshes that the Weekly warns us against are salt water. Wigglers don’t do brine. I suspect that the greatest danger is posed to those who live alongside the Santa Ana River or downstream from the Prado Dam in San Bernardino County.

That medical facilities may not be equipped to adequately diagnose WNV is probable. But WNV is petty in comparison to other public health problems in the county such as deaths from guns and automobile accidents. Perhaps the problem need not be laid at the feet of the Weekly but at that of public officials who have become desensitized to the human cost of OC’s lousy public health system. As goes the Board of Supervisors and the Register, so goes the public. The Weekly may think itself doing a service by hyping this relatively minor threat to the county well-being. I disagree if that is the motive, but I do feel that one of the most important things that a government can do for its people is to provide them responsible information and networks so that health care providers can deal effectively with new scourges out of Africa, Asia, or wherever.

Beyond Orange County exists the CDC which has an extensive site documenting the dangers from WNV. Wielding WNV as the weapon for fighting a skinflint Board of Supervisors may place unnecessary additional strains on an overextended and underfinanced hospital system. Back east, people were reporting to the Emergency Room for mosquito bites. Is it a service to those who have pressing problems to flood the system with such calls? I think not. Our best instrument is knowledge of WNV is and how it can be prevented. The Five Myths page at the CDC is a good starting point.

The Los Angeles Times story mentions two companies which are ready to cash in on this West Nile Virus scare. Having seen how the pharmaceutical companies have milked the AIDS crisis for all the dollars they could suckle, I do not doubt that one objective here is money. What are Assemblyman’s Spitzer’s ties to the drug industry is one question I’d like to see the Weekly or the Times ask. How expensive will treatment be for the victims?

And what about the county’s infant mortality rate? Drug companies pay little attention to this because there’s no money in the young. The United States is number one among the developing nations in this. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is to stop relying on local government for problems that come in airplanes and down freeways. There are times when Big Government is needed and Health Care is a prime example.

Some may ask why I am picking on the Weekly, especially in the light of last week’s “worst blog ever” incident and subsequent sniping from RS. To tell the truth, I’m not. I became aware of this coverage because I actually read the Weekly. Having written on this issue before on my blog, I would have responded as I have here. The Weekly is staffed by human beings and far more palatable a read than the Register. This is coming from a friend who often admires their coverage.

1 Comment so far

  1. Meridian (unregistered) on August 17th, 2005 @ 4:48 am


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