Consider yourself lucky if you are not part of the one per cent.
It is not riches and luxury that are to be avoided; rather, the severe illness that accompanies the 1 per cent of folks who develop a severe infection after exposure to the West Nile virus.
With all of the hype, it is hard to believe that so few folks who are exposed to West Nile virus will actually come down with symptoms. Twenty per cent may have some minor effects, but only 1 per cent of them will bear the brunt of the most serious and sometimes fatal illnesses associated with it.
In the scheme of things, these odds seem pretty good. In fact, even better than good if you consider that in only about 5,000 cases of West Nile virus recorded in North America last year, less than 300 fatalities resulted. All of the lower 48 contiguous states reported cases of West Nile, and Texas seems to be a hot spot for the disease. Last week, West Nile virus was found in Martha’s Vineyard mosquitoes.
Though it wouldn’t be imprudent to grab the bug spray, consider the life cycle and frequency of infection before panicking.
West Nile virus is an arbovirus — that is, a virus that is transmitted via arthropods such as ticks and mosquitoes. This virus is composed of a single strand of RNA that is in the scientific genus Flavivirus.
Flaviviruses include many scary viruses. Who would want to meet up with the group of organisms that can cause West Nile, encephalitis, dengue fever and yellow fever, among others? In fact, the term ‘flavivirus’ was coined because the root word ‘flavus’ means yellow in Latin, referring to the jaundice that plagued the victims of yellow fever. All of the above-mentioned flaviviruses share some commonalities, including size, symmetry and appearance.
West Nile virus is transmitted to humans via mosquitoes. The mosquitoes acquire the virus from birds. In fact, many animals can harbor West Nile virus. It has been isolated in more than 40 species of mosquitoes and 70 species of birds, though it seems to have a fondness for corvids (ravens, blue jays and crows). But the virus is also found in horses, pigs, hamsters, sheep, monkeys, frogs, and ticks; few creatures are immune.
No vaccine exists nor are there medications to treat the illnesses that the virus can cause. It takes at least two days, and may even take up to 14 days, to start to experience symptoms for the small portion of the population that does develop symptoms after exposure.
The best bet is prevention. Either covering up or using insect repellent can lessen your chances of a mosquito bite and the diseases that can be transmitted by it.
First discovered in 1937 in Uganda, West Nile virus has travelled quickly and effectively around the world — not surprising when you consider the distances that migrating birds can cover. It had invaded this country by 1999.
So it’s here, and it’s here to stay. Not a death sentence for 99 per cent of us, but still a concern because of the uncertainty surrounding who belongs to the remaining 1 per cent and what can be done for them.
“There is nothing so patient,” wrote Mira Grant, “in this world or any other, as a virus searching for a host.” Let’s hope that close in second place is scientific research, following right behind with a remedy or cure to help that single percentile.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.