We're Worrying About The Wrong Mosquito Virus

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
zika vs. west nile

It’s no secret America is having a collective freakout over the Zika virus. It’s mosquito-borne. It causes few or no symptoms, so you don’t necessarily know that you have it. And worst of all, it harms babies. In pregnant women, Zika can cause devastating birth defects, including microcephaly, eye defects, hearing loss, and impaired growth. It’s the virus’s effects on babies that make us terrified to hear that Zika is now found in mosquitoes in at least one Miami neighborhood.

But we’re forgetting something. Like Zika, it’s another flavivirus. It’s mosquito-borne and can cause serious illness or death in those who contract it. West Nile virus, first detected in New York in 1999, spreads when mosquitoes feed on infected birds, then bite a human. And 80% of people never know they have it. According to the CDC, the other 20% develop fever, body aches, and rash. Less than 1% will develop a neurologic illness like encephalitis or meningitis, and 10% of those people will die.

Outbreaks occur every summer, and it has killed 1,700 people in the United States since 1999. Unlike Zika, which is confined to travel-related illness and the neighborhood in Miami (and US territory Puerto Rico,) West Nile virus is found in all of the lower 48 states.

Are you freaking out yet?

This year alone, 662 cases of West Nile have been reported in the United States. Of those, 323 were classified as “neuroinvasive,” i.e., the person got really, really, really sick. So far, 18 people have died.

In 2002, it hit epidemic status, with 2,942 cases of neuroinvasive illness. That included children as young as 3 months old. And West Nile hits those with fragile immune systems (the young, the old, the infirm) the hardest. So children with fragile health, including preemies, are at increased risk for serious complications.

The risks are slight. Yet so is the risk of Zika, especially for the non-pregnant. So why are we losing our heads over Zika and ignoring West Nile? After all, West Nile can kill you, while Zika only causes birth defects (“only” as compared to “being dead”).

Basically, Zika hurts babies, and it hurts babies in scary-looking ways that cause mental disabilities. (Gasp! The horror!) Not to minimize the sadness of delivering a baby with a reduced IQ, but better that than dead, right? A microcephalic baby provides a frightening visual — much scarier than a dead grandmother. (Sorry, Grandma, think of the children.) A pregnant woman carries her dreams in her belly. When those dreams are threatened, we’re all frightened.

Plus, Zika is new (at least to us, though not to the rest of the world), whereas we’ve had West Nile for 17 years now. It’s not news that people contract it, suffer from it, and keel over. On the other hand, the media is breathlessly reporting all Zika cases, which churns up terror.

West Nile poses no special danger to children (other than the immunocompromised and others in fragile health). So moms aren’t racing to slather their precious babies in the 30% Deet recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, or dressing them in long sleeves and long pants at sunrise and sunset. But while the risks of West Nile are slim, they’re real — much more real than Zika, which is, so far, confined to travel-related and sexually transmitted cases.

So what can we do? The same things we do to make sure Zika doesn’t get a foothold. Take basic mosquito precautions: Dump standing water, wear repellant with Deet, and dress in long sleeves and pants. In addition, because West Nile has a chain of infection that includes birds, don’t let your kids mess with any dead ones. (My husband goes so far as to be sketchy about feathers, but he’s paranoid like that.) Instead, report all dead birds to your local health department.

Zika is a threat to a select few (i.e., so far, pregnant women in Florida). West Nile threatens the entire country. But because itty-bitty babies aren’t the only ones harmed, we Americans tend to ignore it. Instead, we need to remember that there’s another flavivirus out there, one more dangerous and more widespread than Zika here in the United States. It’s one that we all need to take precautions for.

Go to the CDC’s West Nile Disease Cases by State to see how many people have been infected or died in your area. Compare it to the information for Zika, where all 43 locally acquired cases have happened in Florida.

We should worry. But we’re worrying about the wrong flavivirus.

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