Whatever Happened to ... ? the Lost Suburban Stories of 2001

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Kazak Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer

The story commanded the front page for days this past September.

The West Nile Virus - some two years after beginning its westward march from New York - finally had appeared in some dead birds found in the Chicago area.

For days, reporters inundated the Illinois Department of Heath's press office with requests for information on the virus that had claimed several lives back east.

"It was big news," said health department spokesman Tom Schafer, who remembers his days - starting on Sept. 5 - being filled by returning those media phone calls.

At the time, about five birds had been found infected with the virus. Then, a few days later, as Michael Jordan was preparing to announce his return to the NBA, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

After that, West Nile Virus news garnered not front page headlines, but brief mentions on the inside pages - if that.

It was one of many stories that had its value diminished - or eradicated altogether - in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.

Did you forget the others?

Rosemont is still battling to get its casino. The Bears are still planning on building an upside down bowl in Soldier Field despite opposition. Local, undocumented immigrants are still hoping that summer meetings between Mexican President Vicente Fox and President Bush will mean legalization for most of them.

All of these local stories - sans war - likely still would be on the front page or leading news broadcasts, media experts said.

In the case of the West Nile Virus, winter time means no mosquitoes -the main way the virus is transferred from infected animals to humans. That means no story, right?

Think again. As of this week, the heath department has found 143 dead birds in Cook, Will, Lake, DuPage and Kane counties that tested positive for the virus - a big jump from five.

This news of a growing number of dead, infected birds didn't break this week - it was announced in the weeks after the attacks. But Schafer said those announcements got little, if any, coverage.

"The news hole shrunk a little bit," said Schafer, who was glad that warnings about the virus and precautions people needed to take got out in those few days before the attacks when the virus dominated the news.

It was lucky, Schafer said, that the virus showed up when it did - at the end of the summer mosquito season. Had there been the same lack of interest in the story, say, in July, Schafer said "the likelihood of human (West Nile Virus) cases would have been much higher. …