West Nile Fever Has Now Spread from Africa to My Own Back Garden in Washington, DC, and Has Killed More Americans in the Past Three Years Than the Entire Anthrax Scare. (America)

Article excerpt

A few clays ago, I went out into my back garden, in the mighty heat and humidity here, and saw a crow on a paving stone, clearly unable to fly. Close up, it looked peculiarly beautiful: there was a perfection about its shiny black feathers, but nothing could disguise that it was near death. The most it could do was rhythmically bobble its head and writhe its body. Having read that morning's Washington Post, I knew lust what to do: urgently, I should ring the DC animal disease control division. "We'll be there within 45 minutes," they said.

And indeed, they were. They arrived in a big van with a flashing beacon, which parked in a non-parking space immediately outside the house. A smart lady dressed in a police-type uniform came in with a box. "This is the third today," she told me. "We had five yesterday." Carrying the box away, she said: "Yes, this is definitely West Nile fever." Hence the drama of the phone call for what would otherwise have been a common-or-garden dying crow, the speed of despatch and the flashing beacon: in our very own back garden, the symptom of a rare and dangerous other-worldly disease had chosen to alight. The bird, I discovered last Monday, finally died in the van.

I would rather expect affected parts of the country to be in a panic as a result of all this, because West Nile fever has actually killed more Americans in the past three years than the entire anthrax scare. Eighteen have died of it since it was first discovered in the US in 1999, and 149 have become seriously ill. It has also killed countless wild birds and devastated the aviary sections of zoos in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York. In the past year it has become apparent the disease has spread to DC, where the local zoo reports that two flamingo chicks, a duck and dozens of other birds have died of the virus.

What is striking about this disease is that it is an example of what is becoming known as "travel medicine". Where illness and diseases are concerned, the world is now truly globalised: it is quite possible for a patient to be sitting in a doctor's waiting room in, say, New York, with a disease unknown in the west and contracted somewhere in the developing world only 16 hours or so earlier. The most frightening example is that of the ebola virus, which can be picked up in the Congo or Uganda, for instance, before the traveller heads west. One study estimates that there are 320 infectious diseases and pathogens prevalent in the developing world but not in the west: doctors in hectically cosmopolitan cities such as New York now take special courses in travel medicine so that they can diagnose afflictions previously unknown at home. …