West Nile virus and West Fairlee

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(Host) West Fairlee Vermont and the West Nile now have a virus in common, and commentator Nils Daulaire says that our attitudes about global health need to change.

(Daulaire) In our soft Vermont August, bird songs and the whine of mosquitoes alternately fill our days and nights, point and counterpoint. One bird, the hermit thrush, would rather avoid people. Like many of us, it seeks seclusion in deep woods, where we can hear its gentle calls.

But in October of 2000, the death of a single hermit thrush in southern Vermont reminded us that even for hermits there is no escaping the forces drawing all our planet’s lives into closer contact. The thrush died of West Nile virus, a virus recently unknown in the Western Hemisphere.

Just two years before, the disease – carried by an exotic bird smuggled into Kennedy International Airport – had claimed its first human victims in a multi-ethnic New York neighborhood. But these human immigrants weren’t responsible for the outbreak. Mosquitoes were the culprits, feeding on and infecting migrating birds that have then spread West Nile with awesome efficiency. Within four years of its solitary introduction, a deadly virus previously confined to West Asia and parts of Africa had infected birds, horses – and humans – in 44 states and the District of Columbia. It had killed 284 people and seriously sickened more than 4,000.

Like a canary in a mineshaft, our dead hermit thrush was only the first sign of a killer’s arrival here in Vermont. Thanks to ubiquitous mosquitoes, as many as 200,000 Americans may have been exposed to West Nile so far. Fortunately, four out of five infected suffer no symptoms, while most others experience only flu-like fever and aches. But the virus can be fatal, especially among the elderly.

Since 1998, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in efforts to control the disease, but West Nile is now permanently established in the U.S. ecosystem and still spreading across our continent. This summer it will finally blanket all 48 lower states.

The problem, of course, is that once it got in our back door, the disease just couldn’t be stopped. Unlike SARS, West Nile was no new threat. Public health experts had long understood its danger. But the world hadn’t made the modest investment needed for monitoring and control – efforts that could have kept it from crossing to our shores.

And West Nile is not alone. There are dozens more waiting for their ticket to America. Should we just wait? Of course not. As we saw with SARS, our best investment – for our own health security – is basic care for people in poor and developing nations. Better care over there will help prevent new infectious diseases from breaking out over here.

In answer to these threats and costs, some will sing the hermit’s song, asking “Why can’t we just close our borders and hide in our woods?” But we can’t. The fate of that Vermont hermit thrush tells us the moral of the West Nile story: In this age of global interconnectedness, isolationism just isn’t a healthy option.

This is Nils Daulaire in Norwich, Vermont.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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