America's latest health threat is not carried by a bioterrorist
but a mosquito.
So far this year, the so-called West Nile virus has spread
farther and caused more fatalities than anthrax. It's an example,
experts say, of how diseases have become globalized.
Thanks to increasing travel and trade, diseases as new as AIDS
and as old as malaria are jumping continents and oceans faster than
That means that even developed countries, such as the United
States, have to bolster their public-health infrastructure to meet
the challenge. But the demand comes at a difficult time for cash-
strapped states and localities, which traditionally have provided
the first line of defense against mosquito-borne pathogens.
"Unfold a map and close your eyes and point: Virtually any place
can be reached within 36 hours," says Madeline Drexler, author of
"Secret Agents: the Menace of Emerging Infections." "And if you can
get there, so can a virus.... West Nile virus shows how globalized
infectious disease has become."
The virus is an unusual attention-getter. Found to be fatal only
in very rare cases, it has nevertheless spread rapidly. Since its
first detection in the US - three years ago in New York City - it
has moved through the South, the Midwest, and possibly as far west
The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that even
in areas where the virus is present, very few mosquitos carry it.
Even then, fewer than 1 percent of people bitten by an infected
mosquito get severely ill.
Nevertheless, 11 fatalities, mostly in Louisiana, have been
attributed to the virus.
"This is a serious problem," says Lyle Petersen, deputy director
for the CDC's division of vector-borne infectious diseases. "Should
we be deathly afraid? Absolutely not."
Boosting bug control
States and localities are stepping up monitoring programs and
mosquito-control. The monitoring programs, where state and local
officials track dead birds and other animals for signs of the virus,
appear to be tracking the spread of the pathogen fairly well. More
questionable are mosquito-control programs.
Some states, such as Florida, Texas, and, ironically, Louisiana,
have done a good job maintaining their control programs, Dr. Lyle
says. Others have let their programs deteriorate as the threat of
serious mosquito-borne diseases has receded in recent decades.
The reappearance of a serious threat comes at a bad time for
Louisiana, for example, last week announced it would have to go
into temporary debt to finance a $3. …